A Poet's Sensitivity, Wendy Videlock Review
A Poet’s Sensitivity: Wendy Videlock Approaches a Foal
By Jeffrey P. Beck
Published in Borderlands, 2017
Jeffrey P. Beck is the recent winner of the Hart Crane Memorial Poetry Award, and honorable mention winner of the Frank O’Hara Poetry Prize. He is Dean of the Nathan Weiss Graduate College at Kean University in Union, N.J.
A mental game I like to play in my library with myself: Which contemporary poet would I like to be? For imaginative intensity, maybe Jamaal May, Kim Addonizio, or Kwame Dawes. For sheer humor, maybe Tony Hoagland, Denise Duhamel, R.S. Gwynn, or Aimee Nezhukumatathil. For wisdom, maybe Ted Kooser, Li-Young Lee, or Lawrence Raab. For cultural awareness and study of people, maybe Alexie, Glück, Espada, or Natalie Diaz. For historical comprehension, maybe Pinsky, Terrance Hayes, or Chana Bloch. For verbal and social experimentation, John Ashbery, CAConrad, or Eileen Myles. For spiritual transcendence, maybe Mary Oliver or Mary Szybist. For formal excellence, maybe A.E. Stallings, Joshua Mehighan, or David Yezzi. For sheer profundity, maybe D. Nurkse or Peter Balakian. But for the sensitive turning of a line: Wendy Videlock.
Yes, Videlock may be less familiar than other poets on this list. But her craft is worthy. Her delicate turning of a line is as breathtaking as it is brief. One must read the poet in action to know it, but the knowing is immediate and startling. Videlock may be less known because she’s published her three books (Nevertheless, The Dark Gnu, and Slingshots & Love Plums) with Able Muse Press, a sturdy but less renowned press, under the capable leadership of Alex Pepple. All the same, Videlock has appeared in Poetry, The New York Times, New Criterion, and other good venues repeatedly, always with reputable offerings. Her “How You Might Approach a Foal” was published in New Criterion, as well in as her book Slingshots & Love Plums, and made Alexie’s selection of The Best American Poetry 2015. The poem serves as exemplum of what Videlock does best—turn a line with sensitivity to sound, tone, and imaginative lift.
Before approaching the foal, it’s worth noting that more than a few of Videlock’s poems begin with a title that forms a subject for the body of the poem to act as predicate. In this vein we have:
In the waiting room,
and violets in bloom. (ll. 1-2)1
The title’s subject is completed by the action of the short two lines, but with characteristic suspense, irony, and surprise. The title space itself, ironically, becomes an anteroom awaiting the surprise of the poem. As is often the case, the surprise is compressed as a concertina. The title induces the reader to guess—who is waiting in the waiting room, under what dire or everyday circumstance, and for what? The words, “no words,” paradoxically suggest the waiting is tense, such that communication is impossible or inappropriate. Yet the poet, always alive to the life that pulses while the waiting goes on, reminds the waiters that nature beckons, with the thrill of violets, punctuated by the rhyme of room and bloom. This compressed irony and surprising image emphasized by an unexpected rhyme are part of the successful Videlock method. We see the same trio of effects in short space in:
The girl with Navaho hair,
leaning back in a chair
In this one, the title pauses, in leaning-chair fashion, in equipoise between the woven hair of the girl and what is to come next: the balance. Does the chair seem “barely there” because of the girl’s impressive hair? Or is the girl “barely there,” distant in her dreamful state? Twelve words, but so much in those twelve words. As Ted Kooser puts it succinctly: “I love short poems, and Wendy Videlock is very good at writing them.”3 Similarly, David J. Rothman compares Videlock to Derek Walcott “in the richness of her verse craft. . . . but where he is a maximalist, she is a minimalist.”4 Indeed, she is a master of short forms, but as an artist interested in hybrid forms, she also has the ability to stretch haiku-like compression into a longer poem.
As readers of Videlock may or may not know, she lives in Western Colorado, where she teaches both painting and poetry. Her ink paintings have a dreaming quality, and her illustration of a horse’s face in The Dark Gnu might just as well illustrate her poem, “How You Might Approach a Foal.” The painting depicts a horse’s face in profile, with large brown, half-moon eyes, luscious lashes, and a mane of pastel greens, browns, blues, and pinks. The mouth appears washed out at the bottom of the painting, but the poet supplies the proverbial wisdom: “Wherever you go, there is the moon.”5 Like her paintings, Videlock’s poems are at once sophisticated and childlike, bubbling with rhyme, fantasy, and humor. With characteristic whimsy, she introduces herself to strangers not as painter or poet, but as “a cat behavior specialist. Or balloon artist. I can talk to anyone about cats or balloons.”6 Yes, whimsical, but in a crafty way. And while she does produce remarkable images in her poems, Videlock does not present herself as a painterly poet in the manner of an imagist, as sound drives her poetry as much as image. In fact, she agrees with A.E. Stallings that “Rhyme is an engine of syntax,” and unapologetically uses rhyme in creating hybrid, usually compressed forms.7
If one studies Videlock’s poems carefully, one typically finds vestiges of other forms: list poems, proverbs, haiku, riddles, sonnets. Her Nevertheless includes her poem, “In Praise of Form,” with the urgent line, “I’ve grown attached to skeletons” (l. 1), a poem in quatrains with basic tetrameters, sans rhyme.8 “The peach,” she announces, “without its pit, is nothing more / than impotence or useless juice” (ll. 8-10). But her skeletons, or peaches, tend to be dreaming (not necessarily dreamy) structures with tremendous focus on the next line, the next word. The list poem “Of Coverings” is sixteen lines, one luminescent word after another, line by line: “Crystals, / whorls, / seeds, / pods, / phantoms, / daemons, / lucid / gods . . .” (ll. 1-8).9 As in so many of her poems, here the breath waits in suspense for final word in the final line that completes the form with the sentence. At times, Videlock exercises well-tried forms, as in “Prufrock Takes a Formal Lover,” but spaces the sonnet into unrhymed quatrains and a couplet. The reader is likely to come to recognition of genre with half surprise in the final line: “one hundred sonnets for a sideways kiss” (l. 14).10 In other poems, the development of form is a satiric riff, as her delightful rhyme on love-making and parody of Flarf, simply entitled “!”: “I think I shall never fear / A brontosaurus that is queer” (l. 25).11 In other poems, the genesis of form is more mysterious. Her poem, “The Road that Cannot Make up Her Mind,” begins as a tercet sonnet, playfully satirizing Frost’s “Road not Taken,” but dissolves into a shorter poem without the tercets. In all these forms, the theme of Ayanna, or the beautiful certainty of uncertainty, plays out, including Videlock’s poem “How You Might Approach a Foal.”
So, we have now come to Videlock’s equine title, new born, fragile, full of uncertainty, full of life, waiting for the predicate that will complete her poem with the evanescence of ink. While most poets in The Best American Poetry indulge happily in commentary on their inclusions, Videlock did not comment on “How You Might Approach a Foal.” That omission is unsurprising, given that even in her interviews she often speaks less than her interviewer. As she told David Mason, “Yes, silence is underrated and language overused. Where these things come from I can’t really say. My love of them probably grew in the dark, and like everything else, had to fight for some sunlight. I think it was Frost who said, ‘One must be a little secret in order to secrete.’ This seems to be true of my nature.”12 Silent and secretive about her poems, Wendy Videlock secretes well. “How You Might Approach a Foal” is long by Videlock standards, at 24 lines, but each line is spare as a half breath, awaiting the conclusion of poem with the final word and the one and only period. A syntax of whispered comparisons, punctuated by occasional rhymes, drives the poem, built on the simile like:
like a lagoon,
like a canoe,
are part earth
and part moon,
had never been
to the outer brink
or the inner Louvre,
like your mother,
just this morning
had combed a dream
into your hair. . . (ll. 1-16).13 (Best American Poetry 2015, 140, ll. 1-16)
Clearly, the foal is part of Videlock’s mythology of the West as a “mystical, unreachable destination.” The experience of the poem is both sensuous and mystical. As the reader might notice, although the poem is crafted in tercets, it is almost painful to extract only part of poem, as the tercets are interlocked by rhyme, near rhymes, and a syntax that awaits the final line. Building the poem on repetition of the simile like, Videlock wisely avoids a metaphoric and more definite statement of an “approach” toward new life. The “Might” of the title is emphatic. Every “like” in the poem is a suggestion that hints at a secret unable to be defined exactly in words—a sacred statement about new life. The lagoon and canoe of lines 1-2 begin the poem, glistening in the waters of birth, and lines 3-5 advance the comparison to you, reminding the reader of his or her kinship with new life. The déjà-vu is a reminder of birth, which is mystically jamais-vu, never-seen, although experienced by the child. This same uncertainty of the mother who “just this morning / had combed a dream / into your hair.” The maternal presence is an abiding one in dreams, recalling one’s unrecallable birth. The ancient, ever-new experience of birth is as vital as air or hay for a horse, as traumatic as a venture to the outer brink, as beautiful as an experience of the inner Louvre, and yet unable to be known entirely. And the rhymes, moon, lagoon, you, déjà-vu, hair, air, as well as consonances such as lagoon, been, drive the sounds of the poem forward to the final line.
In the final three tercets of “How You Might Approach a Foal” comes the moment of both parturition and transformation of the reader. Videlock concludes:
had never heard
or a harsh word,
like a fool
like a pearl,
are new to the world. (ll. 17-24)
The sacred language becomes overt in the conclusion, but is distinguished from the religiosity of sermons and harsh words. This is a gospel of rebirth (John 3:3), a pearl of “great price” (Matth. 13:46), a becoming a fool to be wise (1 Cor. 3:18), an invocation of sacred language not to refer to a far-off heaven, but the other-worldly experience of worldly birth. At once, the foal and the reader become new to the world, united by the miracle of new life. Even the most jaded reader cannot help but be moved by it, and pause at the end of the sentence, which is also the beginning of life. In this as much as any of her poems, Videlock makes silence speak in hushed reverence for the present moment.
To return to the literary parlor game of the introduction, I would not study Wendy Videlock to understand some features of contemporary poetry. She seldom writes in free verse in an expansive way. Her range of geography, characters, and poetic practices is somewhat circumscribed. She won’t engage in conceptualist experiments, won’t become a master theorist of poetics, and won’t venture too far from her childhood gods and daemons. D.A. Jeremy Telman says of her work: “Just as one can walk into a room in an art gallery, see a painting for the first time and immediately recognize it as a Van Gogh or a Cezanne, one immediately knows when one is reading Videlock”14 She doesn’t do everything, but for what she does, Videlock is as distinctive and fine a poet as you can find. So if you want to read a short poem to make your breath tense, to hang onto every word and the silence between words; if you want to delve into a poem like a Zen koan; if you want to savor a poem to help you become more mindful of the beautiful present moment, then you do want to read Wendy Videlock. If you read one of her poems, slowly, again and again, you will want to read more.