"Joe Wilkins has a big, true, highway-running American voice. When you see a new book of his, you should celebrate. Just buy it, put down the window, and let the music blow back your hair. It's nothing but alive." – Luis Alberto Urrea
The other weekend, on a plane from Denver to Minneapolis, my sixteen-month-old son sleeping fitfully on my lap, I reread Robert Wrigley’s Beautiful Country and felt like some kind of thief, keeping all these breathless, needful, gainsaying poems to myself. I wanted to whisper into the small hollow of my son’s ear, recite to my wife, turn in my seat and to the man in the blue suit behind me say, “Listen.”
Consider “Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin,” a short, unassuming lyric near the middle of the book, in which the speaker simply tells of how he lifted the old leather cover and “the book / opened like a blasted bird,” how there were no more “familiar and miraculous inks,” only “a constructions of filaments and dust, / thoroughfares of worms, and a silage / of silverfish husks.” Though these lines can no doubt be read as a succinct critique of one of our deepest, most pernicious national obsessions, what I find so powerful about the poem is that it wrecks us and reconstructs us. The end takes us one step further: “in the autumn light, / eight hundred pages of perfect wordless lace.” In place of Paul’s fearful exhortations and those miracles that work against the natural world, Wrigley gives us the rot of silverfish, autumn light, and lace. He allows us, for a moment, to be in and of the world.
The poem, like so many in the book, is technically dazzling as well: dense, sound driven, syntactically various. Truly, Wrigley is the rare poet who delights and challenges the intellect, while instructing the heart. And there is no better example of this than the very next poem in the book, “Exxon”: a three-page, moment-exploding tour de force about shaking a wounded Iraq War vet’s hand at a gas station. Here, rather than letting the images themselves allude to the cultural forces surrounding a particular moment, Wrigley names them all. Searching after some kind of meaning, he lets his language spin out and away and grab hold of everything from prosthetic supply catalogs and the Book of Job to IED’s, our gasoline fueled capitalism, and definitions of citizenship. Yet Wrigley again refuses to merely deconstruct, refuses to let us let go that vet’s hand. Like the war itself, the poem inexorably marches on and into all our lives:
See the soldier who nods and whose left
intact hand extended to your extended right one
confuses you an instant, but who nods again
to relieve you in your awkwardness. And behold them,
your untouched touched hands, as he nestles his man-made
right one over both of yours on his left, feeling,
between his old self and his new, a responsible citizen.
Many of the poems in Beautiful Country follow these patterns. Like “Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin,” “Lichen,” “Misunderstanding,” and “Hailstorm in the Mountains” are all carefully crafted lyrics, while “County,” “American Fear,” and “Do Not Go” are similar to “Exxon” for their torqued language and sheer ferocity. Yet Wrigley has always been a powerful narrative poet as well. While never leaving that songlike language, with poems like “Responsibility,” “Letting Go,” and “Beautiful Country” Wrigley allows the poems to loosen up as he tells us of weekend pack trips with his sons and days spent stemming pot as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Perhaps my favorite poem in the book, “Miss June, 1971,” has Wrigley again remembering his CO days, facing down an angry sergeant major and a Playboy calendar on the wall behind him:
I was not a Protestant then and did not protest
the sergeant major’s treatment of me. Instead, I took it
and didn’t say a word but studied
the bit of parsley between his teeth, August 1971,
and, for many years thereafter, understood nothing.
Almost all the poems in Beautiful Country are sharper, angrier, more culturally concerned than those of Wrigley’s last few books, yet readers will find Wrigley still grappling with many of his usual subjects: horses, mountains, starlight, the wind in the cedars. For this strange but effective admixture, Beautiful Country calls to mind two of Wrigley’s earlier masterworks: The Lives of the Animals, a book deeply rooted in the mountains of Idaho, and What My Father Believed, which chronicles Wrigley’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and his relationship with his father. Beautiful Country is also, simply, a great book by one of our great poets.
Though I missed the man in the blue suit, I have already given Beautiful Country over to my wife. Someday, when he is wondering at this maddening, breathtaking country of ours, I will hand it to my son.
This review originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion magazine.