The Nature of Nature: Wanek’s Rival Gardens, by Janna Knittel

Connie Wanek’s skill for rendering affect shows in one of the earlier poems included in her collection of selected poems, Rival Gardens (2016). In “Umbrella,” the speaker personifies and addresses this common object:

When I push the button

you fly off the handle

old skin and bones,

black bat wing.

The speaker compares the umbrella to both herself and her mother: “we’re likely to get carried away, and say / something we can never retract.” But the umbrella is also “what roof I have, / frail thing, // You’re my argument / against the whole sky.” The emotional movement in the poem, from calling the umbrella “old skin and bones” to “frail thing” is subtly powerful. Reading the poem and feeling sympathy for an inanimate object, I took a lesson in craft while I enjoyed the poem itself.

The book is part of the Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series and includes an introduction by Kooser, who confesses to liking Wanek’s work better than his own. He emphasizes Wanek’s nonacademic background, her work as a public librarian rather than a professor, and mentions that both he and Wanek are poets from the Midwest, “an area that literary critics from both coasts avoid as if it were Death Valley in July.” Yet the collection demonstrates that, while Wanek’s poems are rooted in a specific place and populated by Minnesota flora and fauna, the power of her poetry is not just in where it originates but in how well it communicates, how it affects the reader’s emotions.

The book includes poems from three previous collections: Bonfire (1997), Hartley Field (2002), and On Speaking Terms (2010). It therefore provides an excellent introduction to Wanek’s work. Her skill with and propensity for personification is further evidenced in poems like “Wandering Sky,” in which “It’s the wind that drives the sky to one side / and herds the stars along, and pulls / the thread out of the needle” and “Butter,” in which “We have a yellow bowl near the toaster / where summer’s butter grows / soft and sentimental. / We love it for its weeping.” Wanek deploys personification more frequently than most contemporary poets, I think, and evokes feelings for inanimate objects that the reader likely never gives much thought. These personifications are often funny and clever but never merely cute. They create an emotional connection between reader and object, and making the reader feel something they might not otherwise feel is the result of careful craft.

The new poems are divided into three parts, the last of which has the tightest focus, containing several poems about deaths—of aging parents, of spouses—and grief. The speaker of “They Live with Us” is conscious of the dead around her all the time: “Even now they are weighing / every word I write.” Yet this section does not drown in grief or regret about aging. It also rejoices in love late in life. “Recalled to Life,” about a woman dating again in her sixties, details the wonderful, terrible anticipation of waiting for a phone call from one’s beloved and how it feels the same at 60-something as at 16.

The new poems, like the collected poems, with their frequent use of personification, evince a strong skill for showing ordinary objects in a new light. “Artificial Tears” is such a poem, which is both literally about the bottled product and about grieving. Among the symptoms requiring artificial tears is when “a face you love stops smiling.” Grief is something that must be faced: “[F]orce / your eyes open, and let / the tears fall in.”

As the title suggests, the book is full of gardens and gardening. Some manifestations take the form of biblical references that are refreshingly grounded in reality rather than abstractions, such as “A Field of Barley” in which “Nothing could be more lyrical” than the wind passing over the stalks of grain and the speaker confesses, “Why God favored Abel’s burnt meat / I’ll never understand.” Wanek’s revisionist Bible stories featuring Mrs. God are particularly delightful, presenting God’s helpmate as a down-to-earth gardener, “wearing her garden gloves / and pants with muddy knees.” Mrs. God is extremely sensible. To her, God is “Mr. Big Ideas, sure, / but someone had to run the numbers.”

Wanek is a nature poet, but a nature poet who often questions the nature of nature. She writes about wildlife and wilderness, especially encounters near Lake Superior, where she lives and where wildlife encounters are part of everyday life. This includes a bear and a buck deer seen at “The Summerhouse” and a moose who visits “The Neighbor’s Pond.” 

For her, nature includes gardens. Though not wild, gardens provide opportunities to examine the relationship between humans and nonhumans. In “Pollen” the speaker states,

 

The neighbor’s bees, his chattel,

are healthy again, and back they’ve come

to work in my garden.

 

The speaker uses the disparaging term “chattel” to describe her neighbor’s ownership of his bees but also acknowledges that she benefits from their pollinating activities. She admits complicity in the neighbor’s bee ownership. While Wanek makes a pretty clear argument that capitalism has no place in nature, she does so by asking questions, rather than making overt arguments: “How can bees be property? / How can a garden?” The second question is another acknowledgment of the speaker’s own taming of nature, in the form of plant life. The interrogative stance works as a way to pose an argument, to invite the reader to question, too, without making a stentorian statement about the value of nature.

The last poem in the book, “Also by this Gardener,” is about how nature defies boundaries: “Deer that crossed the property line / became mine.” But the speaker also asks, “who owned the seven birches” near that line. Gardening and agriculture organize nature: “I was raised / … to love order, // corn in mounds and mounds / in a row.” The poem becomes an ars poetica; as the speaker says, “I learned to surrender” to nature, to disorder, to chaos, as an artist must do. The final lines of this poem serve as an offering to the reader, and an invitation to make their own order or chaos: “Here are all my keys to the land: / this handful of seeds.”

 

Janna Knittel is a writer from the Pacific Northwest who now lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. She earned her MFA from the University of Minnesota in May 2016. She has published poems in Adirondack Review, Apostrophe, Cold Mountain Review, Jabberwock Review, Midwest Quarterly, Neat, and Parnassus. She is a finalist for the 2016 Rita Dove Poetry Award from the Center for Women Writers and was co-winner of the James Wright Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2013 and 2015 and received an honorable mention in 2014. Her current projects are a chapbook about The Dalles Dam in Oregon and a book-length manuscript.

Front Cover Issue 64