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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Robert Wrigley

At a glance
Earthy Meditations: New and Selected Poems
by Robert Wrigley

176 pages, $20

There’s nothing precious about Robert Wrigley’s poetry.

Wrigley, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Idaho, is a writer of the West. He works in the arena of nature, and his imagery – while dealing with every topic from the existence of God to the “pure oceanic illogic” of Rilke’s arguments to the plaster cast of a man’s penis – is delivered in language that is as muscular as it is metaphorical.

Which is why we have chosen his collection “Earthy Meditations: New and Selected Poems” as the June reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

It’s not common for The SR Book Club to consider poetry. Wrigley’s book, in fact, is the first. The form is long overdue for a month-long look, and Wrigley is an obvious choice to go first.

No less a critic than Philip Levine, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, had this to say about Wrigley’s fifth poetry collection, 1999’s “Reign of Snakes”: “In this new book he has become … someone who has wandered into a ferocious cave of the natural world and suddenly sees his life, and ours as well, in bold and undreamed of colors. It’s almost as though the veil has been lifted from his eyes, and the glorious and terrifying truths have been revealed in poems that are at once majestic and personal.”

Take this first stanza from the poem “Sad Moose,” which comes from that book:

“He’s shed his left horn and lists/
to the right, working the last one/
hard against trees and stones./
An old bull, his dewlap’s shot/
with silver, his winter hide/
shelving off like crumbling shale.
High on the brisket there’s a wound,/
oozing and festering, the fletched end
of an arrow worn down but visible still.”

“Carrion on the hoof,” Wrigley’s narrator observes. Yet when he senses the narrator’s presences, the animal attacks in “moosely abandon,” causing the human observer to climb “a lodgepole no bigger than my thigh” to escape.
And just that fast, the line between the two – man, animal – is closed:

“Sad moose, sad man. Sad is the world/
a while, as it waits to feed,/
some of seed and tendril, some of us stone./

“Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems” contains 19 new poems, plus selections from Wrigley’s previous six books. Read in one sitting, the collection gives a look at Wrigley’s career, which began with 1979’s “The Sinking of Clay City” and proceeded through 1986’s “Moon in a Mason Jar,” 1991’s “What My Father Believed,” 1995’s “In the Bank of Beautiful Sins” and 2003’s “Lives of the Animals.”

Wrigley, who won the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award in 2000 – which, besides being a commentary on the quality of his work earned him a $100,000 cash prize – has seen his work published in virtually every important poetry journal in the country, from the Yale Review to The New Yorker magazine.

Born in 1951 in East St. Louis, Ill.Ö, Wrigley grew up in the nearby coal-mining town of Collinsville. After a short stint in the army, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University. It was at the University of Montana, though, where he began studying poetry under such noted poets as Madeline DeFrees and Richard Hugo.

After earning his master’s of fine arts at Montana, Wrigley taught at various colleges and universities. He lived for a decade with his wife, memoirist/novelist Kim Barnes (“In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in an Unknown Country”), and their children above the Clearwater River before moving to Moscow to teach at UI.

No one takes poetry, or his place in it, more seriously. Speaking to Gonzaga University English professor/poet Tod Marshall in the latter’s book of interviews “Range of the Possible: Conversations with Contemporary Poets,” Wrigley said this of his craft: “All the stuff about factions, about prizes, about poetry’s role in culture seems to me to be distractions from that essential relationship between the poet and the language and the language’s ability to plumb the human enterprise.”

Writing in Publishers Weekly, a reviewer said this about “Earthly Meditations”: “Wrigley’s quiet respect for nonhuman nature and his consistent interest in the meaning of sex, paternity and literary inheritance unify his detailed and trustworthy, if rarely pyrotechnic, work, in which ‘Living is a slow dance you know/ you’re dreaming, but the chill at your neck/ is real.”

Nothing precious about that. It is, though, profound.

Next up: July’s book-club selection will be “Buffalo Medicine” by April Christofferson.

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