Mar 1, 2017
Creative Writing
Contributor’s Marginalia: Lisa Russ Spaar on Solstice by Chelsea Wagenaar

I was thrilled to see Chelsea Wagenaar’s beautiful poem “Solstice” on the verso and mine on the recto (pages 2 and 3) of 32 Poems, Volume 14, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2016.

Ever since I first met Chelsea (she was my undergraduate student in the Area Program in Poetry Writing at the University of Virginia), I’ve felt in poetic, soul-sister conversation with her and her work. So the felicity of discovering our poems appearing side by side in this marvelous issue, like two wings when the journal is open, like puzzle pieces fitting when the journal is closed, was a particular joy for me.

In thinking about how I might respond to Chelsea’s poem, several things came to mind. If I were musical, I might have composed a tune to accompany her words (her poems could create a new hymnal). If artistic: a painting or photograph. As a “critic” and reviewer of poems, I could say much about this lyric, its shout-outs to Lowell, the Psalmist, Milton . . . and about Chelsea’s pitch-perfect ear, her ardent heart.

I noticed that her poem was about twice as long as mine. I settled on attempting to create a cento, pairing every other one of her lines with one of mine to create a kind of drunk-on-beauty, tipsy equinoctial balance in a way that would allow our poems to mesh and converse.

Chelsea’s poem arrived in winter; at the time I’m assembling our cento in February, the light is beginning to lengthen (O, Lent cometh) and we are looking forward to spring, especially in what has been a gray season on so many levels. Although her poems never eschew the dark and difficult (“some darks too dark”), they are always suffused with the fluent embers of her faith and vision, something for which I’m abidingly grateful.

a cento, for Chelsea

It’s obscurity inscribed on the air,
windowsill cornucopia that sundown reddens,

the moon a blurted secret at both ends
with salt-glazed resins, fallow volution,

with nothing but moon and eyeglow,
petrified morning glory, souvenir, ocean relic.

I could ask the darkness to hide me,
intricate as the alleyways of the inner ear.

The answer, the wild approaching dark barely fronded
is the long-gone inside that flees, refracted.

Windows crypted with frost? I heard
pinings for its rented house, indifferent artifact.

Milton—going blind as he wrote:
the spiraling room our bodies make, numinous.

Not even the fires give off light
when we—what will become of that? When one of us–?

Some stories are too true to finish.
I bring this bony shell-piece to my lips.

Blackbirds fling upward from a field
to worship every second we have left.

Beneath each wing a startling ember
facing down every lonesome mirror

into the deepening firmament
in which we’ll never see ourselves again.

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, including Glass Town (Red Hen Press, 1999), Blue Venus(Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and most recently Vanitas, Rough (Persea, December 2012).  A new collection of her poems, Orexia, will appear from Persea in February 2017.  She is the editor of Acquainted with the Night:  Insomnia Poems (Columbia University Press, 1999) and All that Mighty Heart:  London Poems (University of Virginia Press, 2008), and a collection of her essays, The Hide-and-Seek Muse:  Annotations of Contemporary Poetry, appeared from Drunken Boat Media in March 2013.  She is the editor of a recent anthology, Monticello in Mind:  Fifty Contemporary Poets on Jefferson, which appeared from the University of Virginia Press in 2016.  Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award, a 2016 Pushcart Prize Anthology award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize for Poetry, an All University Teaching Award, an Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Library of Virginia Award for Poetry, a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities fellowship, and the 2013-2014 Faculty Award of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation.  A 2014 Finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award for Excellence in Reviewing and one of three national finalists for the 2016 Cherry Award for Excellence in Teaching, she was recently appointed the Horace W. Goldsmith NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Virginia for 2016-2018.  Her poems have appeared or forthcoming in the Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize Anthology series and are frequently reprinted on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily.  Her poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Boston Review, IMAGE, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and quarterlies.  Her commentaries and columns about poetry appear regularly or are forthcoming in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.  She has been a master teacher at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Seattle Pacific University, and the Vermont Studio Center, and she is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

Original Publication: 32poems