by Aimee Penna
“Listening to Mozart,” the first poem of Donna Wolf-Palacio’s collection, What I Don’t Know, begins with the declaration: “Once I thought art was everything.” It’s an intriguing beginning, which leads us to ask, if art is no longer everything for this speaker, then what are the things that have come to matter more? As we read through the beautifully paced poems in the collection, and consider their subject matter, we begin to discover what these things may be.
Many of the poems are about loved ones, some living, and some who have passed on: a father, mother, brother, husband, former loves. These poems don’t shy away from showing the loved ones with their flaws and failings, and yet a strong empathy and tenderness comes through as well. In the elegiac poem “Brother” she writes:
Selling that store was the end of you. Not even a trip to China
could make it right. Not even a boat. You left this world
afraid of crash, in love with crash.
Wolf-Palacio seems to use line breaks intuitively. In the passage above, the feeling of going to the ends of the earth, of searching, is echoed by the long lines ending with “China” and “world.” The tiny sentence, “Not even a boat,” is nestled in the stanza, as if in a small, safe place, buffering itself from waves crashing around it.
Almost as a counterbalance to the interpersonal intimacy of these poems are Wolf-Palacio’s renderings of ancient Chinese poems, which are suffused with natural imagery and solitary reflection. Trees, clouds, temples, mountains and bells ringing figure prominently in these translated works by such poets as Li Po and Wang Wei. There’s a feeling of stillness and replenishment in these poems, a sense that just being is sometimes enough to make a difference, as in the final lines of her rendering of Wang Wei’s “Passing the Temple:”
At dusk, at the bend of an empty stream,
Your sitting may banish the poison
From the heart of the dragon.
As Jane Kenyon found her poetic soul mate across time in Anna Akhmatova, so Wolf-Palacio seems to have found a fundamental source of inspiration in these Chinese works. Also like Kenyon, Wolf-Palacio’s poems, though they take place in modern times, tend to avoid references to modern phenomena like cell phones or pop culture, in favor of more timeless imagery, often related to the natural world.
There are several poems in the collection about motherhood. In these poems we find a sort of bridge between the love poems and those more connected to contemplation and the cycles of the earth; it is in these poems about daughters that all of the thematic imagery seems to merge. “They have given you to me,” she writes in “Waiting for Emma:”
and you wait
like a drop of rain
on a branch, like a round
milky pearl held by invisible
strands, or a pebble made of snow,
or a blinking ivory moon.
And, in “To Emma:”
When you fall, little purple plum,
in the meadow, Dad and I
will catch you in our best
new shoes. You’ll fall whole […]
There’s a feeling, in these poems, of nature’s will and human will being in harmony, and of a parent understanding her role of when to catch and when to let go. “She can go/ as high as she sees, the sun won’t stop her,” she writes in “The Daughter,” “But I won’t tell her; the swing is her mother.”
One of my favorite lines in the collection is from the poem “Violets in the Morning.” Eschewing a more familiar description of the violet flowers themselves, this poem focuses on the stems, describing them as nurturing support for the leaves. It ends:
They grow from what they hide
and guard their meeting place like thieves.
and where they touch, they change their shape.
That final line could serve as a description of the transformative power of love itself. Art may not be the thing that matters most in life, but in reading through the poems in this collection, Donna Wolf-Palacio’s own art reminds us of what does.
Donna Wolf-Palacio’s book, What I Don’t Know is forthcoming 22 April 2011 from Finishing Line Press.