Review: Robert Wrigley’s “Beautiful Country”

Beautiful Country, Robert Wrigley
Penguin, 2010, 978-0-14-311837-4, $18.00

Robert Wrigley’s “Beautiful Country”

Robert Wrigley’s newest book is entitled, Beautiful Country. (It is Wrigley’s eighth book of poems.) The title is drawn from a quote from John Brown, the American insurrectionist. In Brown’s reference to “country,” perhaps he was talking about the countryside of Charlestown, Virginia; perhaps he was talking on a larger scale about the sprawling national identity of the United States, itself. Wrigley, too, likes to work on a terrain that can shift from remote instinct to one’s sympathetic thread in the larger weave of human justice.

The book is not divided into sections. The complexity of the book accumulates with the pitch of each poem. The marvelous and the murderous each take their place from animal calls to a poem about the ambivalence of ballistic power. In one poem the poet questions the notion of “progress”: how one used to “have to pry the disk of wax” deposited when sealing the mason jar of homemade apple butter before dolloping it on his toast with a long-handled teaspoon. … “but the jam this morning comes in those tiny single-serving jars sealed with a stirrup of foily paper.” The poems dip back and forth in time—the wiser now weighing in on the callow. Where can the new configurations of the practice of writing arise if not from the same shadowy landscapes? Much like the previous searches in America for Cibola, El Dorado, or Heaven in the American Wilderness – and after so much “progress” — where is one to look for the “Beautiful Country?”

230-odd years the republic crawls
through its slow-motion youth, democracy requiring not
only equality but a vast sameness many fear,
as some fear guns and others fear their guns
will be taken away, their beautiful guns,
poetry in them, shining assemblages of articulate parts
in which ammo is the main idea. Consider the idea
that a thing can be beyond perfection, as in a more perfect,

(“American Fear”)

One of Wrigley’s greatest abilities is to stay inside his own field of instinct and human knowledge. The subjects of his poems are often animals – or the odd terrain where humans and animals observe or encounter one another. Wrigley is not a sloppy new-ager or a facile metaphysicist who transcendentally can wring magical mileage out of the noble animal world. He is an artist grappling with human Truth. The truth is found in his poetic marvel of the animals; in the poetic marvel he has for his own nasty and marvelous humanity. The animals are the object of his reverent attention. (What W.H. Auden would call an expression of Dame Kind.) When that same existential attention is turned on his fellow human creatures, Wrigley avails a populist sympathy… and for those he allows closer, an erotic charge — the listener is allowed to hear song of his own inner life:

… I watched him feed
for a long time, just the two of us, until I was hungry
and ceased for a little while to worry.
And later, when the boys came back, he took again to the sky,
uttering as he did his single inconsolable cry.

(“Anthropomorphic Duck”)

Wrigley is a subtle and generous writer. The poems stay in the physical world. But there are influences and affinities for the educated reader; literary discants of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, Robert Frost, Richard Hugo, James Dickey, A. R. Ammons, Seamus Heaney.

An eighth book is an achievement for Wrigley. A gift for the rest of us.

“Beautiful Country” can be purchased here.

Scott Hightower is a poet living with one foot in New York City, one in Texas, and one in Madrid. His third collection, Part of the Bargain, received the 2004 Hayden Carruth Award. His translations from Spanish have garnered him a Willis Barnstone Translation Prize. He teaches at NYU, and has taught poetry, non-fiction, and translation at Drew, F.I.T., Fordham, and Poets House.