The poems in Maximilian Werner’s collection Cold Blessings seem to come from another time, when the only screen we had was television and our conversations were held either in person or by phone; when we spent time loafing and inviting our souls. Remember what it was like to lie in the grass, watching treetops sway overhead or piles of clouds changing shape? Or just to lie in the grass at all? These poems remember that; they are sense-saturated with the physical world, pulsing with intimate detail.
Life and death meet here: a cat gives birth in the bedclothes to dead kittens riddled with ticks; a man finds the body of his son, dead by suicide, being eaten by the family dogs. The poems sit on that meeting place: in “Meditation on the Panicum Grass,” an early poem in the book, the speaker muses on a liminal “something” that’s gone out of him, something that he can remember being there at various events in his life and can recall seeing in others at moments of extremity:
… on my brother’s face when he kissed his girlfriend in her casket, and on her face,
… when I asked
to identify the body of a boy because I was there
and chances were I knew him.
This fascination with the liminal extends to geography. Many of the poems are set in zones where the natural and societal worlds overlap and intermingle; there is “wind on the field” and “wind over wells, bottles, and buckets,” and the air is “heavy with pinesap and diesel.” The rural, the mountain, and the seaside are favorite sites.
I wonder what younger (or lifelong urban) readers might think of these poems. Fewer and fewer of us grow up with daily immersion in the natural world, and it takes memories formed in such immersion, I think, to enter fully into these poems and to let them enter fully into you. Those with no interest in the natural world, who don’t respond to it, will be nonplused, I suspect, by the images welling up off these pages. I used to ride the FrontRunner train to Ogden frequently, and in the evenings I would fill my eyes with the beauty of the mountains at sunset and dusk. Often a fellow rider would look up from a screen, notice me gazing out the window, turn to see what I was looking at, then pivot back to look at me in complete bafflement before looking back down at the screen. According to researchers, young people don’t look around as they emerge from buildings — or trains — as we used to do, but keep looking down at their phones. Think what they will see if they read these lines:
Drone flies in the flowers
fire their wings, silver
blurs above their backs.
Will they see insects?
(This is not to take digs at young people; we’re all limited by the cultures of our times, and young people are of course as various as the rest of us. If I were reviewing a different sort of collection, I might well be wondering if people of my generation were really able to enter into that poet’s project or poiesis.)
I wonder, too, if those who grow up communicating primarily through text messages will catch the sonic beauty of these lines, with their alliteration and slant assonance, the stop-start cadence created by the long, slow vowels of “drone,” “fire,” “blur,” followed by the shorter vowels of “flowers,” “wings,” “silver,” “backs,” with the extra bit of length in the “o” of “above” enacting the blur of those silver wings — stylings as intricate and rich as the imagery of those flies in the flowers.
Not all of the poems in the collection are set in natural or rural areas; at least two are set in Munich and much of a sequence of poems set on Mallorca is sited firmly in the tourist zone. Some of the poems focus on interactions between or among individuals and are set mostly in interiors. In these poems, too, the language is working its magic; as in this passage from “Morning in Munich,”
I see her half-brother’s fat, ringed finger
in her room at night
with the spondaic insistence of “fat, ringed finger” and the troche of “brother’s” disrupting the iambic pattern started by “I see her half-“; that hyphen, too, enacts the wrongness and trauma of the event — enacts trauma itself — in the moment and in its endless repetition. From a little later in the poem:
I want to lean out this window
I’ve swung open for the last three
mornings to smoke a cigarette, maybe
think about the air mostly
washed of sounds and the sour
smell of hops from the boilers
down at Lowenbrau. I want to spit
from this story, get a feel
for how far I’d go if I fell.
I must admit, I don’t like that line-break after “feel.” It makes me queasy. Maybe it’s meant to, but it risks aligning the speaker with the half-brother in his mother’s childhood room, and I can’t imagine that’s the intent.
That aside, though, the language and cadences of this passage are beautiful, in the same ways and doing the same things that the drone-fly passage is and does — notice the near-palindromic alliteration-assonance of “I want to lean out this window,” the “wa” of “want” and the “ow” of “window” forming one drome, the “ea” of “lean” and the “i” of “window” the other; the extra slant-alliteration of “swung,” launched by “I’ve,” swinging like a gate off the end of the palindromic phrase. Then there are the spondees of “the last three mornings” enacting the compulsion to smoke and the haste to get to it, followed by the extra spondee of “mo” that stretches itself into the long-o release of “morning” and “smoke” and is then cut off by the sibilance, internal slant-alliteration, and short, curt vowels (the “o” of smoke aside) in the phrase “to smoke a cigarette.”
Stop me before I do a close reading of the whole thing — each time I read these poems I see more of the poet’s virtuosity, emerging through a lucidity of narrative that offers access to readers at any level of engagement. You can read this collection just for content and have a rich and rewarding experience, or find delight focusing just on its technical prowess; of course, either way, you’re getting the benefit of both.
I do have some quibbles; the poems’ endings don’t always land, and some passages here and there are belabored or confusingly gnomic. There are times when I don’t get the point — I’ve been bemused each time through by:
come out of the ocean smelling of nothing, but
they look they may as well smell of salt.
But these quibbles are small and few. This is a collection that immerses the reader with its sensory pleasures and rewards repeated reading. Long hours of being have gone into them, hours of watching and listening, musing and mulling and feeling. The cargo of those hours has been brought back to us, and it is a great gift.
I’ll end with the poet-speaker engaged in that close mulling of the natural world, in a poem (“Dirt”) that lands its ending very well, indeed:
But down here, among
the bosky tribes
of spiders, worms
like the earth’s
I find reason
to take my life slow:
When I rise
from my hands and knees
and walk into the house,
I know even then
this dirt walks with me.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jennifer Tonge received an MFA from the University of Utah. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Quarterly West, Poetry, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Bellingham Review.
The recipient of fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ucross Foundation, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Tonge has taught creative writing at the universities of Utah, Wisconsin, and Texas as well as at Butler University. She has served as poetry editor of Quarterly West, as president of Writers@Work, on the board of City Art, and as associate editor at Dawn Marano and Associates.