Jan 29 2023
Poetry review – IN THE COUNTRY OF THE PEREGRINE: Charles Rammelkamp considers Wade Stevenson’s eloquently questioning poetry on love
In the poem, “Tell Me What It’s For,” Wade Stevenson asks, playful but deadly serious,
Tell me what it’s for Is it the whisper of a flicker Or a full-fledged flame? Is there an after or before? Does it even have a name? Should I be deeply angered Or just mildly amused? Please tell me—I need to know What the fuck is it all for?
Later in the poem he adds to the conundrum, with the urgency of age (the poet is in his late seventies), “Please tell me – before I die.”
The concept of the peregrine – the traveler, nomad, pilgrim – is the organizing principle that unifies these poems. The collection starts with “The Song Of The Peregrine” – “How you became a peregrine wanderer / Gyring in exiled flight, hunting / Your missing ‘me’” – and this is followed by “Poem For A Peregrine.” “In the Country of the Peregrine” pinpoints this land, this condition: “I belonged to the vast country of the wandering / The exiled.” Yet in the very next poem, “SSHHH!,” the poet identifies himself as “A Peregrine Amor,”
How swooping down swiftly from Both above and below There’s no limit to love, life’s vertical flow
A “peregrine”, of course, is also a falcon, a bird of prey, hence the imagery of flight, which we also find in poems like “To My Peregrine Lover,” in which he writes about “the peregrine soaring / On the solar winds of Amor.”
As in his previous collection Love at the End – indeed, throughout his work – In the Country of the Peregrine shows Wade Stevenson extolling Amor, the life-sustaining love at the heart of life’s journey. It is this very journey that takes center stage in this new book.
Stevenson is curiously reminiscent of Dante, who begins The Inferno, “Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.” Except that for Stevenson, the journey – the exile – begins at birth. It’s the condition of being alive. “The Hurting,” “The Trauma Trap,” “Birthing Poem” all lament this “primordial wound.”
Your birthday becomes The day of your first departure
But in “Here Comes The Sun” Stevenson confidently tells us:
A sublime Amor will come to heal All those ancient fucking wounds
Stevenson repeats this belief throughout the book, notably in one of the final poem, “A Home At Last”:
There’s a final refuge for you – A home in the heart of the Sun Amor
In “I Have Loved So Much” he tells himself, and us, “You finally found a word to cling to” and five lines later he clarifies: “You remembered the first and last word Amor.”
To sum it all up, Stevenson writes in “The Palace Of The Purple Rose,” echoing John Keats’ famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
Knowing loving To love is to know To know is to love That is all you ever need to know
Keats, of course, wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Except in two of the seventy-five poems in this breathtaking collection – “You, Always” and the final “Goodbye Poem” – there are no stanza breaks in any of these poems. Some of the poems are as short as 2 lines – “Poem for Four Words” reads: “Love first / Die later” – while others contain as many as 35 or 40 lines or more. It’s as if Stevenson doesn’t pause for breath, underscoring the urgency of his writing. The poems, often clever, as if Stevenson is winking at us, all cohere around an image, an idea, a metaphor, and proceed headlong down the page. “From Nothing To Something,” for instance, plays on the contrast and similarity of nothing and something. (“How can nothing become something / Something mutate into nothing again?”). “And God Said” likewise plays on the female and male genders (“Let there be he / Let there be she / Let there be he and she together / Let there be a he-she”). The poem resonates with the ideas of erotic love found in Plato’s Symposium.
Yet Stevenson is ambivalent about the value of words, their ability to express this all-consuming love. He writes in “A Farewell To Words,” “I tricked myself thinking my poems might save me” and goes on later in the poem:
But life does not go on searching for a synonym Or at least a rhyme. It comes to a sudden stop Period. The End.
And in “The Trauma Trap” he adds: “This poem, like all poems, doomed to fail.” Yet he tells us in “In The Garden Of The Overnight Words,”
The first thing I do each morning when I rise Is check my poems: did they survive the night? Together/separately did they grow all right? Did one letter learn to love the other?
And we’ve already seen in “I Have Loved So Much” that the first and last – the only – word is Amor. He echoes this feeling in “What The Crow Knows” (“I’m a poet and I use words to fight the world”) when he tells us “I finally found a word so raw.” That word “was pure Amor.”
So where does this leave us? Indeed, What the fuck is it all for? Like William Butler Yeats before him, desperately seeking to restore his virility, Wade Stevenson laments the loss of physical potency, but in the “Goodbye Poem” that concludes this meditative, lyrical collection, in which he enjoins, “Let your aging body agonize / in peace,” he concludes on the optimistic note:
Hello again The end becomes the beginning, I await the dawning