Review of On Speaking Terms by Connie Wanek

Copper Canyon Press, 2010
Softcover, $15.00

Reviewed by James Crews

Every once in a while a book of poetry will fall into your hands and—perhaps not expecting much at first—you read it in one sitting, breathing a sigh of relief that you have discovered a new poet (new to you, at least) whose work actually speaks to you. Such was the case for me with Connie Wanek’s aptly titled On Speaking Terms, published a few years ago by Copper Canyon Press. Wanek, a retired librarian from Duluth, Minnesota and 2006 Witter Bynner Fellow, has not garnered as much attention as she should for this lovely book. And she will likely be called a regionalist, that label most reviled by many writers. It’s true her settings hew close to the frigid landscapes of the Upper Midwest, but she sees these places, these lakes and rivers, so keenly that her poems trigger deep insights into nature, offering us a new way to look at our relations to the world. At a time when few poets explore the ordinary, Wanek gently reminds us what’s possible with simple, straightforward talk. In “A Sighting,” she writes of the owl spotted during a hike:

He must have just eaten
something that had, itself, just eaten.
Finally he crossed the swamp and vanished
as into a new day, hours before us,

and we stood near the chest-high reeds,
our feet sinking, and felt
we’d been dropped suddenly from midair
back into our lives.

Wanek is a master of recording the quiet moments—what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being”—but a streak of healthy playfulness also wends its way through many of the poems even when she’s tackling more serious subject matter. “The Death of My Father” opens unexpectedly:

He died at different times in different places.
In Wales he died tomorrow,
which doesn’t mean his death was preventable.
It had been coming for years,
crossing the ocean, the desert, pausing often,
moving like water or wind,
here turned aside by a stone,
then hurried where the way was clear.

Wanek’s stanzas are elegant yet spare rooms we step willingly into, surprised by what we find there, as in “Pickles,” which begins with the line: “I don’t need to say what they look like, do I?” “Confessional Poem” gives us a speaker’s experience as a girl, sharing her “white lies” with the priest in a literal confessional, but the poem soon takes a wonderful turn as she confides the things she wishes she could have confessed:

a silk cuff missing its button,
sheer stockings coiled on the floor,
shoes with heels like wineglass stems—
the hypnotic black-and-white images of film noir,
wherein all eyes followed a bad star
with uncontrollable longing.

Critics often sound poetry’s death-knell, citing a shrinking, almost non-existent audience and the ever-insular, esoteric nature of today’s verse. Surprise, surprise: Most people would read about lives like their own—what John Updike famously called “the human news.” Maybe this is why Wanek’s poems (especially when read in winter) feel like such a balm to me; in “First Snow,” for instance, she lets us join in on the fun as she performs a lighthearted re-imagination of Genesis:

. . . it was Eve who made
the first snowman, her second sin, and she laughed
as she rolled up the wet white carpet
and lifted the wee head into place.

Some will no doubt say that the poems in On Speaking Terms are too simple, that poetry should not be so relatable and pleasurable. They may find off-putting her insistence on turning her gaze toward jelly beans, Scrabble, popcorn and coloring books. These critics will certainly object to her reverence for the everyday. But what else is there? For those poets who aspire toward a wider audience—and for all her quiet ways, Connie Wanek is one of them—and for those who seek to bring the democratic joys of good poetry to readers outside of the academy, these poems are prime examples of the music always available to us when we can simply stop and pay attention. And if we take a look at the work of former U.S. Poet Laureates, or former Nobel Prize winners like Tomas Tranströmer, we see that it is their unique ability to make the quotidian seem suddenly extraordinary that endears them to readers worldwide and renders their work enduring.

In “White Roads,” we begin to understand perhaps how Wanek trained herself in her youth to see the muted beauty of a single place:

I seldom left my world then,
and little entered it. Too much was close at hand
to wonder what became of the sun all night,
the stars all day.
Or where the snow went that lay
so deep upon the roads.

May there be more so-called “regional poets,” patient enough to bring us books we can care about, poems that care enough about us as an audience to say clearly what they mean, to show us a full world, as Connie Wanek’s On Speaking Terms does, without flourish or pretension.