Book Review

Matthew Wimberley’s debut collection of poetry, All The Great Territories, is an elegy in three parts. The book’s narrative arc reads like an arpeggio, diverging and converging on themes of grief and personal transformation. In the first section, the poem “Black Hills” immediately drops us into “the hills of the desolate world,” which Wimberley inhabits and where in “Homily,” “gravestones open / out of the dark like stag horns / through the whitetail’s skull.” Illuminated by bold lyric imagery, Wimberley’s roughshod landscapes are tragically festooned with “cars like crooked teeth” and where “crows cry out / like nails cleft from wet wood.” The “salt trucks” and “diesel exhaust” clogging “the crossroads / in a Circle K parking lot” set the elegiac stage of the late American landscape: a wasted country where “Time / works her saw blade / across the land.” It’s in “this county with no bookstore / and the methadone clinic” where readers are placed on a path toward processing the book’s most prominent themes—grief and loss.

The threnodies in All The Great Territories reach grander heights in the second section as the speaker laments the relationship that failed to manifest between father and son. Keening the absence and subsequent loss of his father, Wimberley writes “Opening my mouth / I hear the stars cry.” At the heart of this book is the reckoning of a “life siphoned to dust,” and Wimberley means this quite literally when he compares holding his father’s ashes to “a still-born / fawn carried toward emptiness / under a black sky.” Wimberley’s lyrical disassociation heightens as he closes out “Holding My Father”:

I wander the heart’s wilderness
on cut feet. Here, kneeling
I touch the tangles of earth snow will erase,
touch the nothing of you
entrusted to me.

So deep are the layers of grief that they are ground down to nothing, and even that nothingness disappears. This grief circles back on itself in “Cold Light” with a meditation on the afterlife, and what that means for father and son:

            I have always wanted
to believe in an afterlife. Though
there is an afterlife I’ve seen
without you.

This finality of loss is placed in collocation to “trailers with Stars and Bars,” “tanning salons,” as well as “The Salvation Army.” This regional juxtaposition where “small towns are an afterthought / beside the highway” and where “shadows bend snow fences / over hills toward the end of America” reveals a gravitas that makes the loss of a father doubly felt. With nowhere to go and a home that no longer feels safe, Wimberley’s titular poem recalls:

crossing into Canada:
the ashes undisturbed for 2000 miles under
an olive colored blanket and jumper cables.
This is how I left America.

This act, signifying both political and personal intent, throws us headlong into part three as the book reaches outside of its grieving—breaking the stereotypes of young poets and solipsism—and illuminates not just the loss of a father, but the loss of a nation. “This road—crumbling into shadow, / nothing else as American—” It’s this connection that allows the book to reintroduce itself with dramatic irony. The bucolic landscapes of All The Great Territories are personified by abandoned buildings, hopeless people, and acts of self-destruction that are not great. In order to reclaim himself from this existential threat, Wimberley once again turns to his father’s ashes, contemplating how to take back a childhood that was stolen from him as well as the sense of ever feeling at home in this world again. He allows himself that power when he writes, “I owned my father the way a god owns a universe.” In “Though He Is Gone, I Carry Him Down From the Mountain,” Wimberley capstones his grief and lays to rest his grieving with an image that seems to jump right out from the mind of Larry Levis: “One pure stillness—the mountains / as fog ascends their crooked spines / on a dustless staircase of moonlight.”

I would be remiss not to mention the artistic roots underneath the surface of All The Great Territories. This collection is an exercise in poetic anthropology—an evolution of form and style. One could argue that All The Great Territories is derivative of Levis, most prominently the three collections: Winter Stars, The Doll Maker’s Ghost, and Elegy. However, such a claim can be addressed by acknowledging that to write poetry, one engages in act of tracing aesthetic ancestry and lineage. The devices, lyrical moves, and learned pathos that Wimberley employs pay homage and tribute to their source. (After all, Levis is given an after nod in “Elegy Written In Dust Kicked Up Along A Back Road,” a transparent move which lends credibility to the genesis of Wimberley’s collection.) If anything, Wimberley augments Levis by adapting his distinguished style to construct a contemporary novel-in-verse, within which a personal narrative is decorated with plaintive observations regarding the rusty remains of America’s wilderness and rural towns. In this way, Levis serves as a mentor as much as a father raises a son in his own image.

In the beginning, Wimberley struggles to mourn the loss of home, father, and country. And by the end, he emerges from the trauma with the intent to preserve himself. Wimberley makes this most apparent in “Here On Earth, 1994” after witnessing his step-father, who he hasn’t yet taken to calling “Dad,” comfort a dying deer: “we take on trust this way—alone and full of fear.” This moment of hope and redemption heals earlier wounds, especially the ones encountered in “Words For My Father From Salmon, Idaho” when Wimberley—after striking a moose with his car, compares himself to his birth father, says, “men like us who have taken / the life of an animal.” Little did the speaker in these early poems know that there would be healing. There would be triumph.

About the Reviewer

John McCarthy is the author of Scared Violent Like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which won the Jake Adam York Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, The Journal, Pleiades, and TriQuarterly. He is the 2016 winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Poetry. John is an associate editor at RHINO and lives in Evanston, Illinois.