cover image Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems

Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems

David Wagoner. University of Illinois Press, $29.95 (301pp) ISBN 978-0-252-06803-4

William Carlos Williams's dictum ""No ideas but in things"" has always been inspirational for Wagoner, but always run through his particular wrench: ""You've learned what you can about this watery sky,/ Its rearrangement of your slight reflections,/ Its turmoil"" declares the speaker of ""By a River."" While Wagoner can usually be found writing about a familiar range of topics--his native Midwest, the environmentalist concerns of his adopted Northwest (loggers and hunters are main targets), romantic love, and nature's evocation of intimacy, wonder and alienation--his imaginative scope is never confined by his preoccupations. In a manner similar to another steady American, Robert Penn Warren, he's mastered the poetic sequence (""Landscapes""; ""Traveling Light""), and in a series on his late father, a steel-mill worker, he colloquially recalls his own sympathetic gestures: ""I shook the dying and dead/ Ashes down through the grate/ And, with firetongs, hauled out clinkers/ Like the vertebrae of monsters."" Early poems are crammed with advice on surviving life in the woods: campsites will seem ""deeply, starkly appealing/ Like a lost home""; a bear ""may feel free/ To act out all his own displeasures with a vengeance."" Such lessons yield to a sense of physical fragility in the septuagenarian poet: the title poem to the award-winning Walt Whitman Bathing imagines the aging American bard dancing ""A few light steps, his right leg leading the way/ Unsteadily but considerately for the left/ As if with an awkward partner."" Whether recognizing that the dead ""have no need of us"" or that a maple's ""roots seem/ Barely supple and springy enough, if bent/ From their set ways, to keep from breaking,"" Wagoner's newest efforts continue to find what it takes for Williams' ""things"" to become metaphorical. (July)