At the surface of days

A review of Rebecca Wolff's 'One Morning—'

One Morning—

One Morning—

Rebecca Wolff

Wave Books 2015, 176 pages, $18.00 ISBN 978-1-940696133

One Morning— is a book about surfaces, about their complexity, inescapability, transience. Here, there may be no other art but the ekphrastic. In the famous Platonic scheme, where eternal forms are represented imperfectly in the world, nothing could be intellectually lower than ekphrasis. But maybe no other sort of knowledge exists. This is the suspicion of One Morning—, that there might be no other truth than the perception of surface, one surface indicating another, and the translation from one kind of surface into another kind:

It’s as though I thought that I could understand every side
from outside

even the side blind[1]

To the credit of the book, this suspicion is the flesh and bones of the aesthetic. One Morning— is painted with thin paint. The thinness is applied, directed, so that many sides can be seen simultaneously.

Look at the paint it’s

dark blue it’s
bright blue (18)

Wolff’s lines are mostly brief splinters of colloquial language, truncated clauses. Her use of blank space speeds up the rhythm instead of adding pauses or weighing down the lines. The longest poem in One Morning—, and the poem with the most prose, is an extraordinary portrait of a man called Peter J. Perry, a onetime drifter who passed his interminable senescence and death in a rotting farmhouse in Tennessee. He had no anchor, no great ambition or drive, no religious direction, no useful conformism to a profession, no network of caring friends. His life had no thickening agent. Perhaps it was mostly blank space, nothing but a collection of odds and ends, details of tertiary significance. Wolff’s success is to make this transparency felt as universal fate:

These are the people who made these people. These are the true stories of their lives, though I am telling them. […] Documentation of a moment, elderly man breathing in a mirror, yes, but it neglects the span, the span of years, about which I am aching, alive with mortality. (66)

The old man looks into the mirror, but we see through him, or maybe we’re blind to a certain dimension. I imagine that children accept surfaces as concrete and full, as permanent. With age, this perception tends to change. Surfaces can become so wavering that that they lose the depth they once signified. One can sit and watch and not believe any of it, want to possess all of it, want to hold it at some handle.

Vision in One Morning— is both uncertain and highly motivated. The narrator needs to see something or someone, goes searching for the unseen in a landscape that is unstable, quick changing. One of the exceptional (and memorable) aspects of One Morning— is how vision here always carries some unrealized desire. This is not to say that the book lacks moments of consummation; they are present, but apprehended by senses other than sight. The most direct and ferocious poems in the volume depict sex in terms of pressure: “compass,” “lodestone,” “telepathy.” The language is intractable and does not rely on vision.

put pressure inside there

the shit out of
this morning (81)

Vision returns to the fore only with the departure of the lover, or lovers. The absence is felt as a haunting, a purposeless swerve of atoms (“clinamen”) or “phantom limb” (97). The connection between vision and longing might be identified as the ghostly principle of this collection:

I stopped by to see you but you were not home


the pure vision

my ancient lives all rising up and risen (141)

These poems may at times seem confessional, but I would not easily accept that they are personal. They are too evasive, marked by a technical concern for what can be fabricated from the transparent. At times, the lines snap together into effects that are like stained-glass done in attenuated watercolor:

All you can hear
is the hissing of the pods
milkweed in the shadow of spires

The stripes of whatever happened (151)

I’ve mostly described the relationship between surface and desire as a personal phenomenon, but it is clearly not only that. Politics in One Morning— is a surface laid over by treacherous absences (hatreds, unrealized needs, frustrations). The titular poem is organized around an incredibly crisp image of smiling evil:

The Germans had arrived
bright and early
in their Fascism

to point out
a spot on the Table,
a spot of water (WaterSpot) on the Veneer. (6–7)

Several of the poems in the volume hint at a dangerous political atmosphere.[2] Media and its message have become fragmented into little doses of immediate gratification. At one moment, the narrator identifies with a famous German radical while doing crunches at the gym. Elsewhere, she expresses optimism about communities. In a Tennessee church, she is brought to tears by the simple, virtuous message of a pastor. Still, the overriding sensation remains that of personal incoherence become public. The poet, flying down the highway in a “lightweight / Japanese / Death Star / buffeted by the great and powerful / winds,” tells a nameless interlocutor:

in the past if you were to say to me
or to rage at me
in a poem
about America I would charge you
a great failure

to even use the word. It is
this land is suffering because poets —

their great cohort —

I look twice
to save lives. (34–35)

The accusation in these lines remains mysterious, as does the apparent solution of looking twice to “save lives.” In a sense, that opacity is the point. The criticism is not meant to be substantiated. It is the frustration that attends there being too many possible angles, too many things to say, too much uncertainty about what to believe. In the random way of keeping unrelated books on my desk, I was reading Cicero’s letters, the Loeb edition with its classy stilted translation, and I was rereading One Morning—, and there was a point of contact between the two (books left alone in a room will plot synchronicity). The translator and biographer of Cicero, D. R. Shackleton Bailey, passes a damning judgment on his subject: “His agile mind moved on the surface of things, victim of their complexity. Always the advocate, he saw from ever-shifting angles, and what he saw he rarely analyzed.”[3] Had Dante assigned a circle for such people, could he have invented a better punishment than Cicero’s enemies? Mark Antony had the writer’s hands chopped off and nailed to the orators’ platform of the Forum. I was thinking about Cicero and his overly subtle mind, and I was thinking about our new president, whose capacity to say anything betrays an almost perfect intellectual corruption, when I got to the last poem of One Morning—. There, the wayward lover finally becomes the politician:

and you the consul
at the consulate […]

and almost despite myself
almost against my better judgment

it is that noble effort
to say something when the variety is impossible — impossibly

it would have to mean that there is just one thing that you really, really
and there’s never been. it’s always been (156–57)

1. Rebecca Wolff, One Morning— (Seattle: Wave Books, 2015), 86.

2. The concept of “friendly fascism” has rightly attracted renewed attention of late. See Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism (Boston: South End Press, 1980).

3. Cicero, Letters to Friends, ed. and trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 14.