They had five cigarettes going. Also a joint
and a foot-and-a-half high hookah brimmed
with cannabis above and 3.2 beer below.
A pale blue smaze hung against the high ceiling.
The six who lived there were lotused around
four unfolded pages of the San Antonio Express-
News, stemming and seeding several resinous pounds of pot,
three of them still in uniform, fatigues at least,
just back from a day at "Special Training Detachment,"
or as it was emblazoned on their helmet liners
"STD" (a sequence of letters not having, in 1971,
the resonance or implication they have today).
It was a holding company for the hopeless
and the hopeful. American soldiers, that is, such as they were.
Also in uniform, person number seven. Call him Sergeant Blinks.
He'd lost an eye in Vietnam, and he was
their dealer, their source, and he liked them more
than seemed reasonable or right and promised them
each a free nickel bag for their custodial work.
And even as they worked, he was strapped off and shooting up
with one of the good sterile syringes
they'd copped from Central Medical Supply.
That was why he liked them, they figured.
Come home a junkie, he seemed happy
to be here, since they were to have been medics
and had stolen those syringes long before
Porter developed the bed-wetting problem and Denton
and Speigel decided they were queers (gay, in those days,
meaning only excessively happy), and before the rest of them
pleaded not merely ordinary fear
but conscientious objection. They said they meant it, in other words,
even as they wondered how killing Nixon could be anything but right.
When they could talk at all they had those kinds of conversations.
They thought about what was wrong and more wrong.
Blinks sat in the room's only chair, spike withdrawn now,
head lolled off to the side, a kind of fractured baleen
of spittle lip to lip across his open mouth.
The pot was so sticky they each paused now and then
to work the goo of it up and off each digit, and rolled it
into black boluses they dropped in a communal coffee cup-
finger hash, it was called, and they couldn't take their eyes off it,
redolent, drop deadly, and very much desired.
It would be, at the end of their stem-and-seed-parsing,
what Sergeant Blinks offered in exchange for his lark:
if he could skin-pop them all with a drop or two of his horse
in the backs of their six left and mostly white hands, it was theirs.
A long pause then. How bad could it be? they wondered.
Meaning how good. Meaning they wanted what they wanted
and didn't want what they might come to want more
or too much of, though what was too much
and what did they really want, after all?
Well, they wanted that cup of finger hash
enough that no one said no, so happily
Blinks rigged up five new times: syringes
from the dozens in the stolen box,
a couple cc's from the bent-back cooking spoon,
and then, in between each of the four metacarpal ridges
across the backs of their newly brave and unheroic hands
he eased-so gently, so skillfully-the needle's slender bevel
just under the skin and made a series of blisters there,
wens, tear-shaped sebaceous cysts of the same stuff
he had not long before plunged a pistonful of into his vein.
As per his instructions, they flexed their fists
and slapped the dabbled backs of their hands
with their undabbled others, and felt come rushing up their arms
a kind of other-coming, overcoming smolder.
Wilson, the one black man among them, studied his biceps
and said again and again hot fudge, hot fudge.
It was like entering a large perfect mouth,
a kind of woman-wetness they were up to their shoulders in,
their necks and ears, until there wasn't anything to say
and even if there had been no mechanism by which to say it.
But it didn't last long, and as far as they would ever know none of them
did it again. And Blinks left them their nickel bags and the sticky stuff,
and Spiegel boiled up the stems and made iced tea from the water.
They were so wrecked they forgot to eat and sat
on the sun-busted front porch for hours, watching swallows cruise for moths.
They even stood to salute at sundown and faced up the block
to the base's back gate at Taps,
and for some reason this was not at all ironic.
Tra-la they would not kill alas, they would not die.
They couldn't see the base flag going down,
but the gloaming coming on from the east
promised another day when everything would be better.
There were bats coming out, hunting.
America, someone said. Beautiful country.
And it was.
-from Beautiful Country
BIO: Robert Wrigley was born February 27, 1951, in East St. Louis, Illinois, Illinois, and grew up in Collinsville, a coal mining town. He received his B.A. (with honors) in English Language & Literature at Southern Illinois University in 1974, and his M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Montana in 1976, where he studied with Madeline DeFrees, John Haines, and Richard Hugo.
His collections of poetry include Beautiful Country (Penguin, 2010) Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin, 2006); Lives of the Animals (2003); Reign of Snakes (1999), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award; In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (1995), winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award and Lenore Marshall Award finalist; What My Father Believed (1991); Moon in a Mason Jar (1986); and The Sinking of Clay City (1979).
His work has also been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals. Wrigley's awards and honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Idaho State Commission on the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize, the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine, the Wagner Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Theodore Roethke Award from Poetry Northwest, and two Pushcart Prizes. From 1987 until 1988 he served as the state of Idaho's writer-in-residence.
Wrigley lives with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes, and their children, on the Clearwater River in Idaho. He has taught at Lewis-ClarkCollege College, at the University of Oregon of Oregon, twice at the University of Montana, where he returned to hold the Richard Hugo Chair in Poetry, and at Warren College. He is the Director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Idaho.
A Review of Robert Wrigley's Beautiful Country by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Robert Wrigley’s seventh collection of poetry, Beautiful Country (Penguin Press, October 2010), examines the United States through the lenses of war (past and present), politics, and its many natural and social landscapes. It’s a fascinating convergence of the naturalist/humanist Wrigley whom readers have come to know since the appearance of his first collection, The Sinking of Clay City (Copper Canyon Press, 1979), and a Robert Wrigley readers don’t know quite as well: the Contentious Objector, the politico, the personae poet.
Beautiful Country is the first book Wrigley has authored since compiling his Selected Works, Earthly Meditations(Penguin Press, 2006), a milestone in any poets career. But unlike many in his position, Wrigley doesn’t give in to the temptation to “reinvent the wheel” in this new collection; rather, the poems of Beautiful Country delve into Wrigley’s experience as a CO during the Viet Name war while boldly investigating the current political, social, and economic status of the United States in pieces like “Exxon” and the title poem. These poems employ the same tools Wrigley has always used: narrative, music, and the line. Many of these works continue what’s become tradition, “After a Rainstorm,” “Hail Storm in the Mountains,” and “Letting Go” mining the natural world for its redemptive glory.
Of course, Wrigley’s third collection, What My Father Believed (University of Illinois Press, 1997), often refers to his CO-ship, but these poems primarily focus on the resulting conflict between Wrigley and his ex-military father, rather than his experience as a CO itself. Beautiful Country, on the other hand, takes us directly into the army barracks where he received medic training before realizing full CO-ship was the only way to avoid taking part in what he believed even then was a senseless and amoral war. In “Miss June,” for example, we witness a violent (and somehow humorous) encounter between a boyish Wrigley and his superior who takes offense to the peace sign he’s chiseled in his dog tags “tapping with the heel / of a combat boot on the butt-end of a pocket knife” (20). Likewise, the title poem tells the story of marijuana and heroin use among soldiers, Wrigley and six of his fellow trainees “lotused around / …several resinous pounds of pot / … / back from a day at ‘Special Training Detachment’” (33).
If it’s unclear why Wrigley has waited until now to write these poems, one need look no further than poems like “Exxon,” which opens “Behold the amazing artificial arm, a machine / eerily similar to the arm it replaced” (38) and goes on to excoriate the physical and social disconnect between the fuel American citizens pay for at the pump and the war (Wrigley clearly believes) America is fighting for oil in the Middle East. Similarly, “American Fear” catalogues over five pages the various absurd fears (“an actual firm, an employer, a company / selling ‘clothing for the disaffected / youth culture,’ … / a marketing vision for the new world”) manifest in 21st Century America, i.e. barophobia (fear of gravity), Cape Fear, and vistiphobia (the fear of clothing) (50-54). These aren’t poems younger poets often have the skill, authority, or, perhaps, gumption to compose.
But like the epigraph that boldly opens the book, “‘This is a beautiful country.’ John Brown, seated on his coffin, as he rode to the gallows, December 2, 1859”, Beautiful Country isn’t a condemnation of America but a eulogy to the America Brown died for and that Wrigley has known, knows, and knows it can be.
There are poems like “County:” “County of innumerable nowheres, half its dogs / underfed and of indeterminate breed. County / of the deep fryer and staples in glass against mice, / county of horned gods and billed hats. Sweat county, / shiver county.” (3), “A Rumor of Bears:” “The day had faded dull—gray sun, gray rain. / Even the slim college girls walking by / wore fat coats the colors of wildebeests” (46), and “All Souls:” It’s late in the season, but still I leave the zucchini /to grow inedibly large, thinking / elongated green jack’o’lanterns /or the county fair’s generous blue ribbon.” (74) that express a clear love for its natural landscapes, particularly of his homestate of Idaho. Love poems such as “A Lock of Her Hair” and “Sisyphus Bees” reveal a poet very much pleased to have his freedom, even if much of the book is in protest of the manner via which that freedom is currently (and historically) sustained. And many of the poems of Beautiful Country revel in the strange (oftentimes unsettling, oftentimes magnificent) array of personages in present-day America in poems like “Fraternity,” “Poor Priscilla,” and “Progress” which asks:
…Is there anywhere you can go
and find a hair-netted octogenarian wrangling a walker
and four massive, camp-sized cast iron skillets full
of Sunday dinner fried chicken at 9:00 am
and ask if she’s serving breakfast, then have her say
“Sure thing, hon, but you’ll have to wait on yourselves”? (17)
Wrigley still likes to play. Take the opening poem, “Responsibility,” which opens with a fifty-four word sentence broken into nine lines over two stanzas:
At the lower fence line under the stars
he hears what at first he takes
to be the neighbor’s mare,
come to investigate his apple pocket,
but then gets that neck-chill
and knows otherwise and turns
to see by starlight alone a dust devil
spitting along perpendicular to the wire
and straight at him. (1)
and “Which Last,” an English sonnet camouflaged in stanzaic couplets:
In the thicket just west of my shack,
under the heaviest of canopied pines,
every day, all winter long, two does recline
and rest, and sometimes when I look
from the window their eyes are closed,
but still they go on chewing whatever
snowbound vegetation they’ve uncovered—
or just their sad, inadequate cuds, I suppose.
As I suppose my daily apple also
is due to them. I’ve been a little slow to learn
not to throw the core and make them run,
but to toss it gently between us, like so,
then go inside and watch through the glass,
to see which is the lucky first one to it, which last. (65)
As always, Wrigley’s poems are as unusually accessible without sacrificing his aesthetic: story, lyric, and a willingness to go where the poem demands. And while these are poems of immense power held under immense control, Wrigley hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. The descendent of generations of coal miners in East St. Louis, Wrigley challenges many of the beliefs of his ancestry in Beautiful Country without a shred of elitism.
It’s been seven years since Wrigley last published a new collection (Live of the Animals, Penguin Press, 2003). It was well worth the wait.
-This review first appeared in The New Orleans Review