Evensong by Ingrid Wendt
Reviewed by Brian Doose
Reviewed by Brian Doose
Truman State University Press, 2011
The title of Ingrid Wendt’s latest collection of poems, Evensong, is a reference to an evening service in the Christian Church. Prayers, psalms, and canticles are spoken and sung; it is often considered a time for reflection, as well as for worship. Wendt, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, and has been participating—as accompanist, as singer—in its various choirs, church and otherwise, for over thirty years, has obviously been influenced by the countless Glorias and Sanctuses she’s no doubt sung, and more than a drop of biblical language has seeped into her poems as a result. Religion, however, seems to be a secondary concern. (One could not charge Wendt with entertaining much more than an audacious spirituality.) In Wendt’s poetry, the language of the bible is not used for the sake of religion, but for that of music, which, one senses, is Wendt’s first love; inserting the occasional hymnal phrase is a conjuring act: one hears the sublime bleating of the pipe organ and the threnodic airs of the choir.
Many poets have tried—and perhaps just as many have failed—to transliterate the quicksilver tongue of music; Wendt, perhaps doubting her powers, or perhaps out of sheer enthusiasm, chooses another path, using some of her poems to pay an exuberant, because heartfelt, tribute to her other art. It is in these poems about music that Wendt comes closest to stating outright the philosophy of human connection that her poetry implies. A profound and humorous quote from a poem titled “Sanctuary”:
When the music begins and we, in our separate
that inner, ever-
present chatter and join
Together in song, again I forget
that in the last election
soprano next to me almost certainly voted wrong
It is in the sphere of pure feeling, in a “shelter of song,” as Wendt has it later in the same poem, that people achieve connection. One often cannot settle differences by way of argument; better to set reason aside, and let music do the rest. Or food. Evensong contains several poems that make mention—or are all about—cooking, one of which is called “After a Class in Seaweed.” The title is enticement enough. Wendt perhaps recognizes that like any piece of music, a piece of food depends on its temporality for its enjoyableness: music must give way to silence; food, to the digestive tract. And the more obvious similarity presents itself: as it is harder to harbor resentments while trying to sight read sheet music, it is easier not to focus on the moral missteps of one’s fellows when one’s mouth is full.
The third, and final, section of Evensong, contains some of the most moving, and some of the longest, poems. Death and transition are the predominant themes. Though alluded to in the previous two sections, it is here that the speaker (perhaps Wendt) grapples most tenaciously and most generously with the death of her mother, of her father, of some of her friends. In “Benediction,” one of Wendt’s best poems and, incidentally, one of the poems most freighted with biblical language, the speaker addresses her dead mother:
…after you died, the last tube taken out and gone,
and they offered to leave us alone, I asked if I could wash you.
. . .
And though you had no choice in acquiescing to my love, I did not
revel in my power, but slowly lifted, washed and patted dry each limb, in turn,
your crooked toes and in between your toes; your shoulders, breasts,
the secret folds between your legs, thin pubic hairs, and with a different cloth,
which would have been your way, your face.
The beauty is in the closeness of the detail—“the crooked toes;” the “thin pubic hairs”—and in the detachment with which it is related—a detachment that communicates the speaker’s love better than could the wildest protestations. It was in this last section that I found the poems that most fed me. Wendt no longer seemed to be aspiring, or paying tribute, to music: these poems are a lovely, heartbreaking kind of singing.
--Brian Doose is a writer living in the mountains behind Santa Barbara.