Marjory Wentworth, New and Selected Poems
Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
2014, 153 pages, paperback, $17
MARJORY WENTWORTH’S FIRST collection, Noticing Eden, was published in 2003, the year in which she was appointed poet laureate to the state of South Carolina. Selections from her first book, from 2007’s Despite Gravity, and from 2010’s The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle are joined in this anthology by thirty-four new poems. In addition to her duties as laureate, Wentworth teaches creative writing and has worked with patients and families affected by cancer and with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Drawing on these varied experiences, her work embraces subjects ranging from the personal to the global, from the historical to the contemporary. New and Selected Poems offers a study in the private and public significance of poetry and the role of the poet as both an individual and a public figure.
In her work Wentworth is clearly drawn to the coast; wind and water imagery pervade her first book in particular. The personal significance of the recurring phrase “the edge of the sky” is explained in “Findhorn”:
The sight of the ocean
always brings me home.
My childhood was one long day
with the sea. I even believed
that souls of the dead
swam beneath the water
until it touched an edge of the sky
and became heaven.
Elsewhere, nature imagery is used to convey the speaker’s emotional state, as in “Lament”:
If only you could see
the way my heart is shifting
on the body’s sands
like a moon shell
[…] like a slashed and stranded sea turtle
tugging against the flood tide.
A peculiar kind of synesthesia blurs not just different senses (“Odors move from room to room like music”), but senses and emotions (“a wind filled with tenderness”).
By the second book, wider humanitarian concerns have begun to emerge: refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, atrocities committed in Gaza and Russia, and the troubled family lives of American schoolchildren. Among the more recent poems are examples of “found poetry” taken from newspaper clippings and poems inspired by articles in the New York Times. These poems, though affecting, simultaneously distance themselves by being at one remove from the events they describe. The eyewitness account that inspired “In Gaza’s Berry Fields,” easily accessed online for comparison, includes the gruesome details of a mortar attack on which Wentworth has relied for much of the pathos of her poem. The most obvious difference is that the journalist’s account gives the names of the Palestinian family members involved and quotes their words; in Wentworth’s version, the poet speaks for the nameless mother, universalizing her terrible loss.
In Wentworth’s newer poems, universal themes are all the more resonant for being rooted in the local landscape. The subtlety with which Wentworth achieves this synthesis makes these poems an ideal introduction to her work for new readers. One of the most powerful poems in the book, “Manacles,” recounts the poet’s children digging for treasure in their backyard on Sullivan’s Island:
Little boys like to dig holes and play with weapons. Like it or
not, there’s no stopping this. It keeps them busy for hours. I
watch my sons from the window of the renovated gate house
where we live. Where we live, gate house is a fancy way of say-
ing slave house. There’s no gate houses where I grew up near
When the youngest child unearths a set of rusty manacles, so heavy “he can barely keep them from dropping on the ground,” the speaker’s queasiness is entirely believable. Two of the most memorable poems in the collection were written for official occasions. “Despite Gravity,” written for the opening ceremony of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge in Charleston, celebrates a bridge as “like a dream / of what is possible. It rises from the earth / as if gravity was something imagined, / and the forces of the universe suspended.” Among the new poems, “The Weight It Takes,” written for the 2o1o inauguration of Governor Nikki Haley, is an almost spiritual meditation on water: “rivers are just a way for us / to find one another.” It is as if the “official” impetus for the poem has provided a point of departure from which Wentworth can take off into lyrical flight. By returning to imagery from the natural world, she is able to celebrate the local while making a plea for the essential oneness of humanity.