W is for Wrigley – And His New Book of Essays Published by Tupelo Press: Nemerov’s Door

The latest book by U.S. master poet Robert Wrigley (1951 – )


My father loved every kind of machinery,
relished bearings, splines, windings, and cogs,
loved the tolerances between moving parts
and the parts that moved the parts,
the many separate machines of machinery.
Loved the punch, the awl, the ratchet, the pawl.
In-feed and out-feed rollers of the thickness planer,
its cutter head and cutters. The barrel and belt sanders,
the auger, capstan, windlass, and magneto.
Such a beautiful vocabulary in his work, words
he knew even if often he did not know
how they were spelled. Seals, risers, armatures.
Claw, ball-peen, sledge, dead-blow, mallet,
hammers all. Butt, mitered, half-lap,
tongue and groove; mortise and tenon,
biscuit, rabbet, dovetail, and box: all joints.
“A poem is a small (or large) machine
made of words,” said William Carlos Williams.
“To build the machine that makes the machine,”
said Elon Musk. Once my father repaired
a broken harpsichord but could not make it sing.
The chock, the bore, the chisel. He could hang a door,
rebuild an engine. Cylinders, pistons, and rings.
Shafts, crank and cam. Hand-cut notches
where the hinges sat. He loved the primary feathers
on the wings of a duck, extended and catching air,
catching also the tops of the whitecap waves
when it landed. Rods, valves, risers, and seals.
Ailerons and flaps, yaw control in the tail.
Machinery, machinery, machinery.
Four syllables in two iambic feet. A soft pulse.
Once I told him what Williams said,
he approached what I made with deeper interest
but no more understanding in the end.
The question he did not ask, that would have
embarrassed him to ask, the question I felt sure
he wanted to ask, the one I was too embarrassed
to ask for him, was “What does it do?”
Eventually the machine his body was broken,
and now it is gone, and the mechanically inclined
machine in his head is also gone,
and most of his tools. The machines that made
the machines are gone too, but for a few
I have kept in remembrance. A fine wood plane
but not the thickness planer, which I would not know
how to use. A variety of clamps I use to clamp
things needing clamping. Frost said
“poetry is the sort of thing poets write.” My father
thought it was the sort of thing I wrote,
but what mattered to him was what it did.
What does it do, and what is it?
A widget that resists conclusions.
A crank that turns a wheel
that turns. A declaration of truth
by a human being running at full speed
in a race with no one, toward nowhere
except away from the beginning and toward arrival.
Once my father watched the snow
and noted how landing on the earth it melted.
He said, “It’s snow that doesn’t know it’s rain.”

Robert Wrigley (1951 – ) from The Georgia Review, Spring 2019

This has to be one of the best “list” poems I have ever come across. And how it braids with a discussion of poetics, its moving parts, not just the moving parts of machines.  And the meaning inside the gorgeous words and craft of this poem.The puzzle that is a parent. That is a child of a parent. And sometimes how a parent and child becomes less puzzling through a poem. And what is a poem? Or as Robert Wrigley writes above:

What does it do, and what is it?
A widget that resists conclusions.
A crank that turns a wheel
that turns. A declaration of truth
by a human being running at full speed
in a race with no one, toward nowhere
except away from the beginning and toward arrival.

And in the essay that gives the title for his most recent nonfiction book of essays, Nemerov’s Door, published by Tupelo Press in April, he defines it again when he wonders how he might have defined it for his father:

Could you have found a way to explain to him that poetry is not in what the poem says but in how it says it? That sometimes the work of poetry is to tell us what we already know.”

I first discovered the essay Nemerov’s Door not by reading it but by hearing it read by Robert at The Centrum Writer’s Conference in Fort Worden, Wa. a few years ago. I hung on to every word in that essay: a memorial to his father and his father’s love of cars and machinery but also a tribute to poetry and in particular one poem of Howard Nemerov who won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his Collected Poems. To read the essay first published by the Missouri Review in 2016 please click here.

For those of you not familar with Robert Wrigley an interviewer in 2013 called him: an institution. I strongly recommend his new essays and his poetry. He retired from a forty year teaching career at the University of Idaho in 2016, his fourth university where he taught after being mentored by two promient U.S. poets Madeleine DeFrees and Richard Hugo. He may not be as well known as other contemporary poets, Billy Collins, Ellen Bass and Dorianne Laux, for example, but he is equally accomplished. And his deep knowledge of poets and poetics shines through in his new book.

American Poet Robert Wrigley and participating in a favorite passtime – fishing!

To say I was thrilled when I heard the essay, Nemerov’s Door was going to be part of the new book, and give it its title, is a huge understatement. (The essay is one of many in  Nemerov’s Door which celebrates a lifetime of teaching, poetics and a long poem by Robert.) That reading had left such an impression and also a companion poem that Robert had read after reading the essay. That poem was Machinery featured above. And like the essay it, too, grapples with the connection between a father and a son and between the making of things and the making of poetry. An essay and poem trying to find what bridges two men with such different vocations and passions. And paradoxically, I think, answers the question not directly asked in the essay or poem:

The question he did not ask, that would have
embarrassed him to ask, the question I felt sure
he wanted to ask, the one I was too embarrassed
to ask for him, was “What does it do?”

But read the essay and poem and you have the answer as to what poetry does! What Robert achieves with both the poem and essay is to say what writing does, what poetry does. It makes connections. It can bridge differences. Can finds similarities. Can discover love is the huge bridge.

In the essay it demonstrates the love of a father who suggests after a lunch near the university where Howard Nemerov worked that the two of them, father and son, should go and see if Nemerov was in. To visit him. To enter a world of poetry so utterly foreign to the father but to suggest it to honour his poet son. And a son who honours his father’s love of cars and machinery and making with his making of a line of poetry that is the last line of Machinery: He said, “It’s snow that doesn’t know it’s rain.” Father and son, not so different, makers, both.

And in this realization I am reminded of Seamus Heaney’s celebrated poem “Digging” which seems to be saying how different Heaney the poet was from his father who dug peat but by the end acknowledges they are both diggers, one with a shovel, one with a pen. And for Robert it turns out the same. Both are makers of finely tuned things. But in Robert’s case he is clear in his comments below that a poem is also a living thing:

I like seeing how poems work. I do not think, as William Carlos Williams did, that the poem is a “small (or large) machine made out of words.” If the poem is a machine , it’s a machine that more resembles a bird than an eggbeater. The poem seems to me more like a living thing.: if it’s a machine, it’s a machine with a pulse……A poem…serves the truth of its own making. Sure, the poem is written by the poet, but if everything is working as it should, the poem itself will have had a major role in its own creation. The poem, its language, and its form, exert extraordinary pressures on how the poet proceed; they often tell the poet how to proceed. It’s a curious ( and from my point of view a blessed) fact that there are no binomial classifications of poetry, as there are in prose. The poem is not either fiction or nonfiction; it’s a poem.

Robert Wrigley from the Introduction, Nemerov’s Door, Tupelo Press, 2021

And another list poem oif Robert’s. This one a bit more racey, so to speak! A strangely affecting poem. Funny but also an uncomfortable intimacy!


In the side yard of an apartment house,
a length of twine extended from a downspout
to the trunk of sapling, and hung upon it
in the motionless air, an array of lacy
intimate garments, as they are sometimes called
in department stores, and one of them—
some kind of bright red, sequined one-piece—
thrashed while the others hung still.

A bird had got inside and could not escape.
I left my briefcase on the sidewalk
and slipped between a pair of shrubs
and easing as carefully as I could my hand
into an elasticized leg hole noticed the filigreed
open crotch and was momentarily distracted,
before reaching inside and gathering
a panicked and exhausted house sparrow.

I held it a few seconds, and stroked its dull head
and its black throat feathers. A male.
Unfortunately, just after I released it,
the woman whose laundry it was,
such as it was,tapped at the window just above me
and gave the OK-sign and smiled, then flapped
her arms to let me know she’d seen it all,
and still, I think, I blushed before I walked away.

The red bit of lingerie was either a merrywidow,
a camiknicker, or a romper. I am not sure how
one tells them apart, although I’m sure
it wasn’t a babydoll, a peignoir, or a French maid.
The bird book describes the female house sparrow
was “dull brown above and dingy whitish below,
”with a barely there “dull eye-stripe,”
a plumage the male must nevertheless find appealing.

Robert Wrigley from Splitlip Journal, 2013



  1. Linda Roberts
    Posted May 3, 2021 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Because I am touched and inspired by your blog today, I wanted to say a big thank you for all your posts and know how appreciated they are. Waiting with anticipation for V. L.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted May 8, 2021 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    So grateful you reached out Linda. Glad to know the blog touched home with you. That you are out there as a reader! V for Vasquez now up!

  3. Richard Osler
    Posted July 30, 2021 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Hi Linda: Just going back to unreplied to comments! I seem stuck on S and have had trouble finding the heart space to write blogs these past few months but wrote one yesterday and will post another today! Grateful to you for your thanks. Many of my readers are unknown to me and don’t make comments so it’s so lovely for me to hear from readers like you!

  4. somae Osler
    Posted May 8, 2021 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Dear Richard,

    I marvel at your ability to take my hand and lead me in an intimate walk alongside yet another poet I hadn’t known before and now am so glad to have met through your blog.
    The two Robert Wrigley poems cross a wide spectrum, Machinery is deft, deeply touches my own experience of my own father, Nomenclature makes me smile.
    Thank you for your wild enthusiasm and insight.

  5. Richard Osler
    Posted July 30, 2021 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Love you! Wild enthusiasm! May I remember to keep cultivating it. Some days as you know I forget!

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