“Words Before Dawn” by William Wenthe (Louisiana State University Press, 65 pages, $17.95)
When Bill Wenthe is fishing for trout, as he loves to do when he can get away from his work as a Texas Tech University professor, I’ll bet his fly lights in precisely the intended spot and floats down the stream without the least interference from the line. That, at least, is the way his ideas flow down the soft current of sound in these 44 poems.
Not that more than one or two of the poems are actually about fly fishing. The subjects include love, cats, Faberge eggs and, as often in Wenthe’s poetry, birds. There are a number of tender poems about his infant daughter. One of those, “Birth,” has him overwhelmed by his new fatherhood. “When I held you in my hands,” he says, “I was the small one.”
His poems do indeed have subjects, as contrasted with the “ironic self-conscious postmodernist fluff” that he deplores in today’s fashionable literary magazines.
But the most breathtaking item in this collection, “Poorwill,” was published in Poetry, the notable champion of the kind of poetry Wenthe does not write.
“Poorwill” is a magical 20-line transfer into print of the essence of an elusive bird. The poorwill flushes, “fluttering and dodging / like a moth in a surfeit of light — / with everywhere to turn, turns everywhere — / as if buffeted by wind of its own wings.” The poorwill belongs to “the family / of birds, nocturnal, exquisitely feathered to blend / into leafmold, treebark, gravelbed.”
Such virtuosity is not typical of this collection. The poems run to quiet subtlety, evocative imagery, and often a warmly humorous turn. Many are in a free verse that seems patterned because it has beginnings and ends, the initial ideas often returning near the end so unobtrusively that the reader feels a small jolt of surprise at the recognition. Other poems have rhyme or slant rhyme, and there is even a quite regular villanelle.
The results are an understated, thoughtful elegance like the music of Gabriel Faure. It would be wonderful to find literary magazines filled with such poetry. Maybe the day will come.