History, self and the body make up the three load-bearing branches of David Wojahn's latest collection of poems, "World Tree" (University of Pittsburgh Press, $15.95). These branches converge to form a corpus of reality, authenticity and personality.
The origins for the book emerged from the Richmond-based poet's fascination with artifacts, especially those in the form of prehistoric ochre paintings on cave walls. According to Wojahn, who shepherds a terrific poetry program at Virginia Commonwealth University, there's something in an artifact, image, song, or even in a memory's ability to survive that can offer a "notion of astonishment" and also link us and our own persistence to theirs.
Connecting with these images and the people who made them is as essential as connecting with family, personal experiences and influential public events. The survival of these artifacts provides a sort of "faith in continuity," that something of the good endures. Wojahn uses the image (attached to each piece in the sequence) as a fulcrum that balances otherwise disparate elements, defying the more traditional ekphrastic poems that merely comment on and detail what's pictured. Often it's the "smudged birds" or the "Mother [who] is eye through slat," or the cadence of things verbalized, yet barely recognizable, that pulls the heavy weight of meaning from these pieces, such as it is with the palimpsest of a ghost-spirit daughter floating near her faceless parents.
In the same vicinity arises the poet's mother in a voting booth, her politics and health triggering the anxiety the narrator feels at the mercy of a "fascist droning on" via the hospital radio while he helplessly attends to his sick child. All things are connected in "World Tree." Sacred questions of existence (for instance, "When will you know you have died?") are routinely and yet profoundly mixed with the profane, such as they are in the photograph of Dick Cheney in a gas mask "programmed to swallow your thoughts," or the image of a smiling Sabrina Herman leaning over a dead man at Abu Ghraib, spliced with another ancient body preparing "for the perilous & beflowered afterlife." Simply put, Wojahn proves why he is one of the best American poets, and "World Tree" deserves to be read and admired. S