03-27-2011

David Wevill

From Asterisks

11.

Dreams: radical doors
forever open, closed

Wake at night to the crying of a spotted fawn
taken by something–

unknown yet familiar
city of strangers
all on first-name terms
whose meanings are forbidden

Here there has been a death
or a vanishment–
self, cold-case detective
in search of his shadow

too late, as often
among the clueless footprints
leading here or there

choose whichever.

12.

We come home in the sense
there is that,
waiting or gone.

A deep
vowel draws us. Otherwise
what lurks in pastures
or lingers in dark city streets

is air that touches
nothing.
An old sandal
its mate lost
is home. The air
in an emptied pen.

Not examples, images.

Memory of a loving hand
stroking
what night
makes afraid.

13.

Spotted fawn is back.
Then what was that cry the other night?

No, there were three.
Lucky or unlucky three.

Both eyes
and the eye between,
the hidden bead of wisdom.

Sincerity of milk.
Duck between mother’s legs
and life will flow.

Deer crowd the little lawn.
Rush hour as I scatter food.

One hand, a dozen mouths.
The furred air we breathe.

14.

True form
of no-form...

It is after and before
memory

I separate
water from water
with my hands

What is there
was predictable, but
who would have guessed
it is this

air the live-oak fills. 

-from To Build My Shadow a Fire

BIO: Born in Yokohama, Japan, of Canadian parents, David Wevill left Japan shortly before the Second World War and was educated in Toronto, Ontario, and at Trinity College School, Port Hope, before taking his B.A. (1957) at Caius College, Cambridge, England. During his Cambridge years he became a member of Philip Hobsbaum's "The Group" (a workshop of poets that included Peter Redgrove, Peter Porter, George MacBeth, and Zulfikar Ghose). During this period, Wevill won England's Eric Gregory Award for Poetry, the only Canadian to do so. He was also the only Canadian to appear in A. Alvarez's landmark anthology The New Poetry (1965). He was a runner-up for a Governor General's Award for A Christ of the Ice-floes (1966). His friendship with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes led to the break-up of his first marriage, events that have been chronicled in various biographies of Plath. Following a period in Burma, where he taught at the University of Mandalay, and a sojourn in Spain, Wevill moved to Austin, Texas, where he is Professor of English at the University of Texas.

Wevill's poetry weaves an intricate mixture of cultural legend and autobiographical reflection in which he sets the understanding of his own life, its joys and various personal difficulties, against the suffering of other artists (Ezra Pound, Robert Schumann, Yasunari Kawabata) as if they are conduits to the solace that he seems to crave. The early works, which portray an uncertain, often lonely individual, the middle works which offer a modern man in search of a dependable though oblique personal mythology, and the later works which present an understanding of a man's position within the experience of his own life, form an opus of self-exploration where the only answer is the Faulknerian edict of endurance and perseverance. His poems often depict the women in his life—his dying mother, his three daughters, and his lost lovers—and they become more than recurring characters or motifs, muse-like in their presence, both troubling and inspiring him.

His poetry—especially in his most recent works in Other Names for the Heart: New and Selected poems, 1964-1984 (1985), Figure of Eight: New Poems and Selected Translations (1987), and Child Eating Snow (1994)—shows the marked influence of those poets whose works he has translated, namely Lorca, Neruda, Machado, Paz, and the Hungarian Ferenc Juhász. Wevill has noted their influence, particularly in reference to his use of landscape, which he views not as "nature, but as 'something out there.'" Into this landscape Wevill often interjects a solitary, contemplative figure who is more at home in his own mind than in his physical environment, as in the early poems "At Rideau Falls" from Birth of a Shark (1964), or in the title poem from A Christ of the Ice-floes. Wevill's is a poetry of the searcher, a recurring theme that signals both his personal restlessness and the need to "create complete poems, not just passing observations." One of his most complete poems is the title piece from Birth of a Shark, in which the world is seen from the obtuse perspective of a young shark who finds himself among a threatening hoard of swimmers.

Wevill's next three volumes of poetry—Firebreak (1971), Where the Arrow Falls (1974), and the prose poems in Casual Ties (1983)—mark an experimental phase in his work where he appears to be looking for direction and foundation in both poetry and life. Casual Ties concludes with a vision of a man, like Shakespeare's Prospero, casting his book into the sea. However, in Other Names for the Heart, a poetic rebirth at the urging of publisher Barry Callaghan, Wevill rediscovers his poetic and personal roots in Japan in "Snow country," a reflection on Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata's tragic story of a geisha and a wealthy businessman. The title poem—in which the persona sees human passion as a form of obsession that must be endured in the name of life and art—examines the isolated passions of Robert Schumann during that composer's final days. In "Summer morning," which concludes Child Eating Snow, Wevill re-examines his personal life from the perspective of a survivor: "You see the world/you saw fifty years ago but had/no words for. Having the words/now makes the light hold still a moment/and the moment resembles your life."