Listening to Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land: Suite always makes me cry. Tears evoked by certain passages of music and scenes of loveliness issue from some deep well of emotion felt as a vague ache, a foreshadowing of loss as much as an overflow of emotion. I’ve also felt this ache in amazed recognition of shared endearment. Vulnerability in the presence of love or beauty and the poignant awareness of their transitory nature are at the heart of Maya C. Popa’s second poetry collection, Wound Is the Origin of Wonder.
In poems that interrogate and contemplate love, loss, and the nature of existence, Popa frequently employs repetition to effect deeper analysis. Take, for example, these stanzas from section five of the long poem “Pestilence”:
In dreams, I was ill
and woke unsure that I was well.
What did “well” even look like
those days that I had been it—
well? I had been the sort of person . . .
I had been the sort
to look forward all day to the day.
The third “well” goes beyond mere repetition, leaping space to appear italicized with homonymic possibility that adds urgency, demanding understanding. For further emphasis and focus, that stanza consists of a single line, unlike the surrounding stanzas. This isolation decelerates reading speed, slowed further by an ellipsis which artfully replicates a fumbling process of analytical thought. Lines turn and double back on themselves to reveal doubt and finally a tentative hypothesis. The last line here quoted ends abruptly, and that unexpected cessation begs multiple readings. Ambiguity in response to open-hearted inquiry is key to Wound Is the Origin of Wonder, enriching the imagery with questions and theories motivated by an aching desire for truth.
In other poems, contradiction focuses and sharpens attention. “The Present Speaks of Past Pain” ends with “The sky filled with stars / that had been there already.” Popa makes frequent reference to cognitive presence as the speaker struggles to understand the self in relation to immediate surroundings and situational factors. This positional awareness is acutely felt in poems that examine the pandemic at its height, framing the distress felt by the living while pondering proximal death on a scale previously unimaginable, as in these lines from “They Are Building a Hospital”:
They have built a hospital
where, in other days, I walked my dog,
counting no blessing but the one I chased,
who startled strangers on blankets
before stretching on the grass. How happy
I was not knowing how happy, walking
the path along the field’s perimeter,
watching the sky flare its oranges and pinks,
reflect a cool purple off the leaves.
Idling in goodness, letting the mind loose
over the life let it. I thought forever
did not think, for so much of gladness
Threaded throughout this collection are beautifully articulated reminiscences of youth considered within the context of a present heavy with loss. One poem that recalls the past, “The Tears of Things,” contains a simile so stunning I gasped in wonder. Popa writes, “. . . fields that froze like strangers // hearing their names called.” What poet wouldn’t wish she had written that? There is much in Wound Is the Origin of Wonder that elicits my admiration, easily convincing me to linger and savor these journeys of contemplation expressed in exquisite imagery and masterful craft.
Popa creates a tone of intimacy by the use of commonplace phrases which include “of course,” “I see that now,” and “needless to say.” Hesitations created by ellipses and em dashes make of the reader a confidant to the speaker’s musings. The tentative nature of the speaker’s pondering, often posed as questions, invites trust and establishes a kinship. We are all mortal, these poems remind us, sharing here a little time and thought.
The book is divided into three sections, each with an eponymous poem regarding wonder as both marvel and puzzle. The vanishing natural world is praised and mourned, perspective and the limits of language are analyzed, and love is associated with hunger and mirror. Each of these three poems takes a different form, but the first and second both contain the word “Westward.” The insistence of attention wrought by capitalization and echo intrigued me. The first “Wound Is the Origin of Wonder” states, “I’ll lose you one day, have lost you always, / a long ongoing Westwardness of thought.” The second contains these lines:
dizzies through the barren trees,
the skyline, a blue fog against
a yellow light, and on the highway
every Westward car blinds me.
Every surface reflects
that quiet understanding: decisions
have been made, irrevocable decisions
to upend beauty for something
approximate—the airport hotel,
its Eiffel Tower on the roof,
a playground near the public storage.
West is where the day goes to die, where light and vision disappear. I think too of the destructive effects of so-called progress on the North American continent, the intrusion of European colonists and the subsequent decimation of native peoples and the natural world. These three poems employ as fulcrum a dead bee, the sky, and snow. All three are regarded with elegiac reverence but especially the last, freighted with awareness of finality as the snow’s cumulative weight on trees will ultimately reach the breaking point.
Popa instills subtle music into her poetry with sound repetitions that create a mellifluous current of consonance, assonance, and alliteration. As an example of this melodic fluidity, consider the following excerpt from the third and final “Wound Is the Origin of Wonder”:
unable to amend the plot or bend
the hand. Like all falls, we came at ours
by pleasure, all languages
seconded, learned by constraint—
no way to say look and away
and mean un-lone me.
Abundantly lovely, these poems address mortal commonalities and life’s contradictions with tender regard. Paraphrasing Rumi in one of the book’s last poems, “All Inner Life Runs at Some Delay,” the speaker reiterates, “The wound is where the light enters us.” In Wound Is the Origin of Wonder, Maya C. Popa contemplates mourning, apprehension, astonishment, and joy from personal, biological, and literary perspectives, conveying the quest for illumination in poetry of remarkable clarity and beauty.
About the Reviewer
Linda Scheller's latest book of poetry is Wind & Children, published in 2022 by Main Street Rag. A retired educator, Ms. Scheller is a founding board member of Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center and volunteers as a programmer for KCBP Community Radio. Recent honors include Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her website is lindascheller.com.