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Review | World Tree, David Wojahn
University of Pittsburgh Press

What most impressed me about David Wojahn’s poems, when I first encountered them,  was their big music. I mean Wojahn’s engagement with the actual texture of his medium. I think, for example, of a poem from a few years back called “Sawdust,” in which the poet conjures the machines in his father’s basement workshop with the line “tintinnabulous, their whirr & snarl.” Those four words show Wojahn’s range: the movement from arcane Latinate to earthy, Anglo Saxon monosyllables correlates with his grand scope of vision—his ability to render both the bare facts of contemporary life and his sense of human history, as well as his intimations of immortality. Wojahn is obsessed with the entire sweep of human culture, and he has the tonal and structural gift to paint that whole canvas. His poetry includes allusions to Gnostic devotional poems as well as bar room conversations with Townes Van Zandt. It portrays both Vladimir Lenin and John Lennon. It reinvigorates received forms while allowing the feedback of contemporary idiom to leak through the amp.

Back when I first read his poems, Wojahn’s sheer ranginess seemed one half of a dramatic whole—the other half being the downward pull of grief. You can see why: the subject matter of the poems includes the alcoholism and depression of parents, the poet’s own melancholy, and the addictions and deaths of loved ones. Wojahn’s willingness to “take a good look at the worst,” as Thomas Hardy once put it, extends to historical and political reality too: few poets have written as strongly, for example, about the degradations of the last ten years of American public life. The referential largesse of the poems felt, then, like a kind of counterbalance. Wonder at the sheer profusion of culture appeared to lighten the darkness, to prevent the poems from becoming lugubrious. This still seems the case to me. But reading Wojahn’s new book, World Tree, I’ve begun to suspect that the imaginative sweep, the inclusiveness, is itself the heart of his work. This doesn’t mean that grief or horror have disappeared from the poems. They certainly haven’t. Nor does it mean that Wojahn has moved past the self. He still roots much of his work in the forms and structures of autobiography. But for all its particularity, the self in this book branches well beyond the self: it becomes a representative consciousness.

To read a Wojahn poem is to feel how consciousness itself can hold and shape various and often contradictory experiences, narrative perspectives, and feeling tones. In the second poem in World Tree, “August, 1953,” for instance, the speaker imagines the moment of his own birth. Here’s the second half of the poem, in which he pans all the way from the Gobi Desert in China to that hospital room in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Mushroom cloud above the Gobi,
& slithering toward Stalin’s brain, the blood clot
takes its time. Ethel Rosenberg has rocketed
to the afterlife, her hair shooting flame. The afterbirth
is sloshing in a pail, steadied by an orderly who curses
when the elevator doors stay shut: I am soul & body & medical waste
foaming to the sewers of Saint Paul. I am not yet aware
of gratitude or shame.
                                     I do know that the light is everywhere.

I love the movement of these lines. The poem wends from an elongated free verse line to the embedded, rhymed pentameter of “I do know that the light is everywhere.” The sentences jump-cut from the images of Cold War horror to the mundane detail of the disgruntled orderly, and then to the ecstatic ending. Just as the baby in “August, 1953” exists within the limits of his own body and also within context of history, so too does the poem.

The larger structures of the book also work to portray the roots and branches of self and world. “August, 1953,” for example, follows the opening poem, “Scribal: My Mother in the Voting Booth,” which juxtaposes a story of the poet’s mother coming down with pneumonia—after waiting in the cold to vote for Nixon in 1968—with an account of Sumerian burial rites, and then with images of the poet’s own son’s pneumonia and trip to the emergency room; this latter narrative appears against the backdrop of the 2004 election. If these images of the body politic make a natural transition into “August, 1953,” the third poem in the book, “Screen Saver: Pharaoh” picks up on the image of the placenta carried away in a bucket by the hospital orderly. This poem takes place in the late seventies, and centers on a group of hippies who, in their stoned, holistic fashion, have made soup from the placenta of the daughter who’s just been born to one of them. The speaker dwells with both irony and genuine nostalgia on that memory, and then as he goes to Google his old friends, his screen-saver flashes, and the poem ends, with a tomb-painting of the burial of a Pharaoh.

Birth and death, the ancient and the modern, the sacred and the profane, our political life and our individual bodies—such themes weave from poem to poem. As they recur throughout World Tree, do they suggest that vital meanings run like patterns beneath our everyday experience? Or, since these motifs recur in wildly different settings, do they convey how time and circumstance estrange our familiar meanings and confute our attempts to order? Does that concluding appearance of the Pharaoh’s burial, for example, intimate the greater breadth of a history to which we’re connected, or does it simply work as a memento mori? Wojahn doesn’t answer these questions. Or to put it another way, his poems themselves answer “yes” to both questions. To read Wojahn is to feel the precariousness and disarray of experience as well as its depth and dimension. 

Two sonnet series seem to me lie at the heart of this book. The title poem, “World Tree,” traces family history through a string of sonnets, each containing references to music and to the (mostly outdated) forms of technology on which it was transmitted. The other series, “Ochre,” presents, on facing pages, reproduced images to which the poems respond. These images include photos and drawings of neolithic cave paintings, early twentieth century vernacular photography, snapshots from the poet’s youth, an ultrasound printout of his twin sons (taken on September 11, 2001), a digital photo from Abu Ghraib, and a declassified shot of Dick Cheney wearing a gas mask. Here is the first sonnet, “Foot Print & Torch Wipe,” which responds to a cave painting from Chauvet, circa 27,000 B.C.E.:

Something of us to prove our afterlife.
Hurried with charcoal on the cave wall of Chauvet.

The hands drip ochre; they fumble with the Kodak.
What is your mother’s maiden name, your wife’s

Middle initial? Favorite sport or pet? You have successfully
Changed your password.
                                         The footprints of the cave’s

Last visitor tell us he was ten or twelve.
We know his height—approximately 4’3”.

As his pine pitch torch tapered down, he’d wipe
The ashen top against the cave side, once against an aurouch,

Once against a cave bear, the way my father would flick
The wavering orange tip of his Lucky Strike

From his lawn chair to the fireflied grass. Our leavings.
The boy crawled lightward,
                                      on his feet the pollen of an Aurignacian spring.

Reading this poem again, what strikes me most is how the abrupt shifts not only give the verse movement speed and edginess, but also render the poem so affecting. Set against the ancient images, those details of the Kodak, the telephone password, and the father’s cigarette take on tremendous force: they too seem creaturely imprints, holding their intense singularity within the staggering expanse of time. At the same moment, they’re made monumental and miniscule—just as our individual lives appear within the larger pattern of history and also appear vulnerable; and just as the poem itself gathers authority and historical dimension from the sonnet form, and yet tears away at that form with the rhythms of free verse as well as such modern idioms as voice messaging. To attempt to offer “something of us to prove our afterlife” means to feel both enlargement and diminishment.

Giving form to contrary emotions can often be disorienting, disturbing. In his poems, Wojahn faces the terrors of life during wartime, the indignities of a culture that often seems intent on denial, the pain of disease and addiction among family and friends, the private agonies of guilt and self-recrimination, as well as the constant and immediate fact of our mortality. But without skirting those realities, Wojahn does something more. He shows us how we can give shape to experience, even while accounting for all the persistent fissures in life.

Wojahn takes as the epigraph for his title poem, “World Tree,”a quotation from Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism. The quotation, describing a ritual meant to enable poetic creation and spiritual freedom, reads like this: “. . . it is considered best to choose a tree that has been struck by lightning.” Growing from their grounding in the crises, routines, and ecstasies of personal experience and forking out into the entire reach of history, these poems themselves conduct tremendous energy. American poetry is greater for that voltage.  


Peter Campion is the author of two books of poems: The Lions (2009) and Other People (2005), both from the University of Chicago Press. His writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Slate, Blackbird, Poetry, The Yale Review, ARTnews, and Modern Painters. He has received a George Starbuck Lectureship at Boston University, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship at Stanford University, a Pushcart Prize, and a Theodore Morrison Fellowship at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was also the winner of the 13th annual Larry Levis Reading Prize, awarded by Virginia Commonwealth University for The Lions. From 2009 to 2010 he was the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. He is the editor of Oxford University’s journal Literary Imagination and an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.