Carving Fresh Initials on the World Tree


Credit: Tristan Kerr.

by David Wojahn
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011


Credit: Tristan Kerr.

In Paleolithic cave art, alongside the bison, aurochs, deer, and horses, a recurring motif is the outline of a human hand. It’s easy to imagine the shamanic significance of animal shapes to a society of hunters, and how animal paintings might have figured in religious rituals, eerily spanning the dimly lit chamber in a flicker of torchlight. But then imagine the ancient artist, before the tribe has gathered, putting aside his charcoal crayon or horsehair brush, chewing lumps of an ochre-rich clay, and spitting it in bursts through a narrow reed, to create a fine mist of color capturing the silhouette of his hand against the wall. Was it a kind of signature? Among the figurative art, these ghostly handprints endure, anonymous yet unmistakably personal traces left behind in a cave that might have been used by generation after generation, for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.

World TreeIn his richly textured new collection, World Tree, the poet David Wojahn fuses the imagery of the cave paintings, and of those elusive handprints, with scenes drawn from his own biographical past and pains, contemporary politics and news, daily domestic life, and a torrent of literary and pop culture references. He weaves it all together into a kaleidoscopic meditation on life, death, and the human instinct to leave some mark, to make some artistic statement, as well as the corresponding effort (however vexed) to preserve some trace of those who are gone.

Wojahn writes from the perspective of a middle-class man, cresting middle age, alive in early twenty-first-century America. He writes as a husband, a father of two young children, a homeowner, a citizen, a teacher, an air traveler, a web surfer, a consumer of news and music and pictures. He observes the busy world with a knowing, slightly mocking, slightly pained and disillusioned sensibility, whether he’s cataloging his day’s errands:
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Or observing the late night scene at Newark Airport:

And yet, the present is loaded with the freight of history. In the airport, in between the PowerPoint and CNN, the businessmen, the mother with young children, the soldier on his way back to the war in Iraq, we have scraps of Leni Riefenstahl’s biography (the speaker is reading to pass the time), with glimpses of Neville Chamberlain and Walt Disney, echoes of historical atrocity, betrayal, complicity. Today, does Riefenstahl’s art outlast her tainted life? Does it last at all — does anything?


This cave painting is one of the many illustrations interleaved with David Wojahn's poems in "Ochre." Credit: Tristan Kerr.

The perspective grows suddenly vast, epochal. The waves of history lap one another, with the scattered details of modern life merging with the details of ancient eras, and the names and jargon of one blurring almost interchangeably with the others. Khufu, PowerPoint, Disney, IED, Chancellory, Xanax, Chauvet — is all of our language just so much bric-a-brac? So much flurrying effort against a vast, featureless extinction? In the airport, effaced every night by “the waxers’ hypnogogic back & forth against the tile,” any single transient body seems to leave no trace.

Although traces do remain. Throughout the book, snatches of Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Frank O’Hara, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, Elvis Costello, David Byrne, and many others, sometimes identified and sometimes not, bob along through the flux. The poems are multi-voiced. The texture is often thick with names and quotations and descriptive details, mingled and juxtaposed freely. But the effect, which in other hands could be off-puttingly pretentious or opaque, is instead somehow welcoming, liberal. Wojahn’s voice retains a warmth and likability, a naturalness, even as it careens through epochs and registers and ventriloquizes others.

Robert Oppenheimer's son, Peter, tries out his father's pipe in this portrait, which appears as part of Wojahn's poem sequence. Credit: Tristan Kerr.

The heart of the book is a sequence entitled “Ochre,” consisting of twenty-five ekphrastic poems, each in the form of a loosely rhymed sonnet, and each loosely describing, exploring, or riffing upon an image shown on the facing page. The images range from reproductions of cave art, to anonymous snapshots from the early twentieth century, from a portrait of Robert Oppenheimer’s young son Peter trying out his father’s pipe (while living at Los Alamos in 1944), to a saturnine Dick Cheney modeling a gas mask shortly after September 11. Some of the images seem to depict Wojahn’s own family — his father in the army, a sonogram of his unborn twins — but mingled with the others, they become depersonalized, archetypal.

Politics run through the poems, as well as anthropology, archaeology, and family matters. The politics are pointed (Dick Cheney: “I am three hundred eyes, I ingest / Mine enemies. I smite them. I am Kali”), but the wide-angle vision of history grants an unexpected tenderness. For instance, in the poem accompanying a snapshot from Abu Ghraib, in which a grinning American MP gives a thumbs-up above the partially bagged corpse of an Iraqi prisoner, the rituals of burial create an ironic link between the Iraqi wrapped in plastic, “a Russian doll / With duct-taped eyes,” and “a Neanderthal male, / Half-blind with a withered arm, impossibly old / At forty,” as he:

As participants in a much larger drama, both the Iraqi and even the callow soldier are granted a larger measure of dignity and shared human grace.

Wojahn displays a vulnerability that is often very moving, especially in his love for his family, and for the dead, and in his shyly passionate desire for artistic expression. At the conclusion of the title sequence, which aligns autobiographical snippets with the history of audio recording media, from 78s to 8-tracks, to CDs, and finally “Download, Shamanic,” he invokes:

And as he hears his toddler sons awake and dancing to the Ramones (“Gabba gabba hey”) upstairs, he offers a kind of prayer:

Throughout this engaging and wonderful collection of poems, Wojahn’s speech never falters, as his voice knits the fragments of the pain-filled world into a marvelous pattern — one that seems likely to endure.

(To return to the Summer 2011 Table of Contents, click here. For an attractively formatted, ready-to-print PDF of this article, click here.)


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