Rosemary Griebel’s Guest Poetry Blog, Part Two – Praise and Lamentation in the Poetry Collection “God of Nothingness” by American Poet Mark Wunderlich

American poet Mark Wunderlich


It came to me to sell the family farm,
shift its failures to a man who planned

to occupy the place for recreation,
to hunt the deer that spook and shadow in the pines,

my job to consign to another my granddad’s stunted grove
of walnuts planted—against the forester’s advice —

with his hired man Tiny, who died
by stepping in front of a train, though first he roped

his dog Bear to a nearby tree, tacking on a note
that read “Take Care Off Me.” Does anyone

remember this fat fact — a loaf of toast and a dozen eggs
was Tiny’s daily breakfast meal? Give it

to me. I’ll remember that bit too…

Mark Wunderlich from God of Nothingness, Graywolf Press, 2021

Every poem has a story to tell but unlike memoir, poetry doesn’t require fidelity to events, only to ideas and emotions, which often are fed by childhood experiences. The landscape of our youth with all its bitter and its sweet is braided into our psyche and informs the adult years in ways that are inexplicable. As we age forward, we are drawn backward to the place that formed us. Or, as American poet Mark Wunderlich has written in his poem Midsummer from his poetry collection God of Nothingness: My future is the only future, my past a story or a scar, / / a body, a book, a bed to rest my head in.

Mark Wunderlich is the award-winning author of four collections of poetry, the most recent being God of Nothingness. He is currently the director of the Bennington Seminars graduate writing program, and lives in the Hudson River Valley. More information about the author can be found at Wunderlich is a Rilke scholar, and we see Rilke’s influence in Wunderlich’s skillful pairing of praise and lamentation throughout this lyrically charged collection.

The connection between memory, place, and poetry has always intrigued me. Certainly, memory and place have been sources of inspiration for poets throughout the ages. Think of Homer’s Odyssey or how the English Lake District is synonymous with Wordsworth. Eavan Boland conjures up Ireland, and when I think of Saskatchewan, I think of Sheri Benning.

I was first drawn to Wunderlich’s poetry because of its familiar (to me) rural roots, and more than that, how that seemingly bucolic world twines the brutality of life and death. Growing up on a farm you learn at an early age nature’s indifference to the human world, and in turn, the human’s taciturn and utilitarian approach to the natural world. Life and death are handmaidens to each other. This haunting and lyrical collection wrestles with deep metaphysical questions, particularly what ultimately matters in our brief lives.

In a section in God of Nothingness entitled On the Autobiographical Impulse Wunderlich asks a series of beseeching questions, which include: Does it matter that I am a homosexual, and therefore on the edge / of some larger portion of the human world?… Does it matter that my mother’s family was poor? That her father beat my grandmother when he drank?… [Does it matter] that the noose [my nephew] used to hang himself / was put out that week in the trash? / Does it matter that he lived or that he died?… Does it matter that I light candles / in churches to burn away disbelief?

These are big questions that are asked of the reader, the poet himself, and perhaps also of the God of Nothingness. To what degree do we carry our past, shape our own destiny, and in the end what does it all matter? Wunderlich concludes this poem with an image of moths who:

search out the truth of the bedside lamp.
Some will survive the night;
others I will sweep from the bedside table
where they spent their last hours yearning toward the light.

The compelling questions put forth in this book reach for the light, but always there is the underbelly of death. For example, only a person who has grown up on a farm and been a member of the 4-H club or raised a pet only to see it slaughtered, could write a poem like Cuthbert with its singsong rhyme and dark undertone. The reader is carried into this poem with words reminiscent of a nursery rhyme. The rhythm, rhyme, and repetition provide a certain kind of musicality and comfort:

I had a lamb and named him Cuthbert.
Cuthbert was what I named my little lamb.
I fed him oats and I fed him corn.
I fed him on the clover flush with spring.
I pet and patted Cuthbert every day,
fed him on the brightest summer hay.
Cuthbert, little Cuthbert, how he grew.
I knew then what Cuthbert didn’t know.

Oh-oh. The poem takes a dark turn as we see Cuthbert being prepared for the county fair (yes. like a lamb to the slaughter): he’s halter trained, hooves shined, haunches combed, and muzzle oiled. Then the inevitable ending –as it often is in rural life–with Cuthbert’s death:

We exited the abattoir’s cold light
and in the concrete hallway was the sight
of heads struck dumb and staring by the door
under plastic sheeting on the floor
to be taken to the mink farm we were told
for every precious portion had been sold.
His head looked out at nothing he could see.
Cuthbert, little Cuthbert, you have nothing left for me.

This poem, like many in God of Nothingness, are presented in couplets yoking together images, sounds, and experiences. The couplet’s power comes from its compression and intensity. Poet Eavan Boland called this ancient form a particular dialect of the Underworld. It is a fitting form for Wunderlich’s collection as many of the poems are elegiac tributes to loved ones who have died including poet-mentors, a nephew who commit suicide, and Wunderlich’s father.

In the eponymous title poem, Wunderlich relates an incident where his father, accompanied by his dog, almost drowned in a boating accident:

My father fell from the boat.
His balance had been poor for some time.

He had gone out in the boat with his dog
hunting ducks in a marsh near Trempealeau, Wisconsin.

No one else was near
save the wiry farmer scraping the gutters in the cow barn

Who was deaf in one ear from years of machines—
And he was half a mile away.

There is a kind of existential loneliness throughout the collection, and particularly in this poem, as Wunderlich describes how the dog abandons his drowning father. Worse yet, his father cannot be saved by some greater power as the God of Nothingnessis a cold god, // a hungry god, selfish and with poor sight.

Wunderlich has identified himself as an agnostic. Repeatedly, we encounter in his poems a deity who is described as nothing, yet that deity hangs over the poems as something. Truth, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, is large and contains multitudes. Whatever is present, must also contain its opposite. To put it another way, where there is life there is also death; where there is spirit, there is also a great absence or void. The best poems are multi-dimensional and hold the contradictory dimensions of lived experience.

In the poem Shanty Wunderlich asks: “How long will I keep telling stories like this— / dirt floors and traplines and a shack abandoned in a swamp? … Poverty is not poetry, this I know. But these pictures / are what’s left of childhood… In fiction we create stories. In poetry we create mysteries, and this resplendent and mysterious collection is a reminder how something rare and precious can be crafted out of a memory, a place, a moment’s perception.

Recovering Words, Blog post by Rosemary Griebel, August 23rd, 2022

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