Reviewed By Tracy Zeman
- Omnidawn (2020)
- 88 pages
In Chopin’s nocturnes, the right hand typically plays the melody, full of arpeggios and ornaments, while the left hand plays somber, broken chords. Similarly, Claire Marie Stancek’s book-length essay-poem, wyrd] bird, grounds the reader in foundational figures and themes: Hildegard of Bingen’s sensory-blending visions and “green vigor;” the blurred boundaries of good and evil as portrayed in texts like Milton’s Paradise Lost; personal and ecological grief embodied in dead birds and broken vessels; and the relationship between words and bodies, “our open wet / speech, awash her / because-filled sunlight.” Guideposts in place, Stancek then telescopes outward and inward, performing spiralizing and broken riffs on her themes while waking, sleeping, walking, or dreaming. wyrd] bird is many books in one—a “sick dream book”; an illuminated exposition on mysticism, a shattered vision-quest through a bloodied, burned and greying world; and a memoir of intimate and collective loss.
The collection begins with the single line: “I slept with my book open, woke into strange thoughts pen in hand.” On the following page, Stancek continues, “Hildegard of Bingen writes frequently of ‘green vigor,’ or in her Latin, viriditas. Maybe it’s the green that blurs, that makes this phrase difficult for me to grasp. I open my fingers. All that’s left is a crushed stem, wet sunlight.” She establishes the link between book and mind or book and body immediately and also opens a dialectic between the speaker and mystic Hildegard of Bingen that will surface, recede, and resurface throughout the collection. Hildegard’s “green vigor” is paralleled by the speaker’s “crushed stem” or “wet sunlight.” “Crushed stem” foreshadows the ecological grief described later in the book or the greying of Hildegard’s green. The “wet sunlight” might reference photosynthesis—converting sunlight into food—but also the blurring or melding of boundaries that happens as senses overlap or words become sensation or matter. “For Hildegard, words could be of sound, or of flame, or of vapor, of mud or limb or stone.” Or here, as Stancek describes beautifully, “when Hildegard mixes metaphors, it’s as though imagination were breaking into its own starry body, as though enchantment were a wrought thing with limbs.”
As bodily senses and words meld and shift so do her formal choices. Prose is primary. Some pages are short, one sentence or fragment only, others are longer and more expository. Within this prose are scattered verses, borrowed text, and literary figures weighing in on the debates at hand. For example, Stancek begins a page in prose:
It’s through the body that we come to understand language. Like the way my dull numb brain felt today so far from its own thoughts, the way it picked up emotions and put them back down again bewildered, and in this way I realized what Keats meant when he described the feel of not to feel it.
Later she quotes from Keats’ poem “Sleep and Poetry.” As we continue reading, her prose becomes more poetic and fragmented, “When a song is playing, but only in the inner ear: faint ache, ghost needle, inscribing a tune already inscribed.” Then reality intrudes upon her exploration of feeling and not feeling: “a text message dings, but it’s someone else’s phone. A bike bell rings, but it’s a thought from far away.” And finally, “In new air we test our distance, unform it between us. // Strangest flavor.” A decidedly poetic ending. At the bottom of the page, Stancek provides alternate word choices, reminiscent of Dickinson’s variant wordings marked with a “+” on page bottom or margin. Her alternates often reinforce the fuzzy relationships between her subjects. Here the reader swaps “syllabling” for “sleeping,” language-making replaces the physical activity of “sleeping,” word and body interchangeable.
Word and body interchangeable but also world. Stancek quotes Hildegard “by the Word from which all the world was created” who references God’s Word, but here too—
—in her right-justified, crammed together lines word and body and world define each other. “Mouth” is the “soundofmanywaters,” and “night” and “touching,” and “sunset” and “song” are all connected. In the “caughtcorporeallylandscapes” and “yourssmellistime.isbleeding” word-world Stancek creates, trauma and loss pervade. The way she shows and exposes singular and collective trauma through image, dream, thematic digression, literary figures, experimentation, and everyday events is the collection’s most profound and compelling aspect. The personal trauma could be a miscarriage, the death of the speaker’s mother, or possible estrangement from a partner. The mother’s death is explicitly stated but the others are more implicit. Stancek seems to describe either a miscarriage or infertility problem when she writes, “what sounds our dream made in the wildered night, caught forever, bleeding every month, then bleeding too often, then bleeding all the time.” Or here when she references a historical figure’s experience, “Mary Robinson suffered from chronic pain, some speculate from a bad miscarriage, followed by a concussion, and one night she had to take more laudanum than usual for the pain.”
The collective trauma is ecological and also later in the book, related to the racial protests in the summer of 2020, the murder of unarmed Black men by law enforcement and law enforcements’ militarized presence in cities during protests. Stancek states “and in a vision I saw a shining sphere . . . from the top and from the bottom, I saw two long black ribbons of oil spreading down and up, along the ocean tides.” Later, on the same page, she continues:
In my dream, I heard the word Satan, uttered distinctly by another
voice, though I felt the word in my own mouth, felt its pointed
body against my teeth.
And I saw a cop holding a machine gun.
What sounds our dream made in the world night, unmade all the
windows, by which I mean smashed.
The ecological trauma of climate change and the trauma of government sanctioned violence are couched in the language of visions, but the meaning is direct and cannot be mistaken. This directness increases towards the book’s end, and the statements gain power because of all the reader/speaker has gone through to read/utter them. “Whatever beauty populates a day seems sinister against the world the withering world.” At the heart of this dense, polyphonic, sonorous text is permeability and ambiguity about living, sensing and feeling, good and evil, and an underlying truth that all phenomena are to a degree overlapping and blurred. Broken chords layered on a “greengrey” “greygreen” world. Stancek’s work defies any easy categorization; it makes and unmakes, momentarily defines and then blends—“what we breathe circulates within us and without us, binds and unbinds us, a loose and impermanent loop. If we could see the air we share, see it in cords that make visible our interbreathing, what thickspun tapestry would pull us close”
Tracy Zeman's first book Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Chicago Review, Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review and others. Zeman has earned residences from the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Ox-Bow and The Wild. She lives outside Detroit with her husband and daughter.