Julie Marie Wade, Without
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
2010, 27 pages, paperback, $12
published the same year as her Lambda award-winning Wishbone: A Memoir In Fractures, Julie Marie Wade’s chapbook Without is a lyrical cartography that wrestles with what it means for a 21st-century American woman to be "separated from the ones who / were once like you, who you were once like." The famous phrase of Thomas Wolfe’s, who is one of this book’s many tutelary spirits, is ruefully true for the worlds of Wade’s poems: You Can’t Go Home Again. But for Wade, the gravity of such a statement—which in a lesser writer’s hands would be hopelessly clichéd—is true not a priori but a posteriori. That is to say, the occasion for this careful chronicling of exile, which Wade describes as a "blizzard of mixed imperatives, fraught blessings," was not foreordained by the firmament but, rather, was chosen, a fact underscored by the book’s telling epigraph from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid: "Each of us must suffer his own demanding ghost."
Throughout Without, Wade not only suffers through the crucible of her demanding ghost; she gives unflinching answer, though, crucially, often by asking questions—"What I want to know is," as the speaker in "The Cartographer" asks, "are there maps that haven’t been drawn yet?" or "how fixed is time?"—that, like the best of Rilke’s, are their own koan-like answers. And while the emotional resonance of the exile recounted in Without does not depend upon the reader knowing the biographical facts acting as catalysts for these poems (one woman’s love for another woman), knowing this neither lessens Wade’s achievement nor narrows the audience of these poems. I do not mean to suggest that these poems do not concern themselves with the question of identity, and a lesbian one at that—the arc of Without relentlessly pursues that vexing question because, as Wade writes in "The Actuary," "we have this problem with names"—rather, language itself is the ground upon which she searches for her bearings. As the Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz memorably put it, himself a poet for whom exile was also a state of being, albeit due to very different circumstances, "Language is the only homeland." But if language itself is Wade’s lodestar, it, like Polaris in the night sky, is not always apprehended directly and, sometimes, only at a slant. Because the world of Without is one in which the paradise of Eden was literally and figuratively forever ago, language’s ability to make meaning is always approximate at best because, as Wade writes in "What Nimrod Should Have Known":
is porous & prone
which is called mother
answers to a hundred
At the poem’s end, Wade likens speech to a Jenga puzzle in a perpetual state of near collapse that finally falls:
And the twin pillars
of the crushed tower
jut forth from the sea: one boasting
Silence, the other Cacophony.
And it is from such a precarious place, pinioned between the extremes of silence and cacophony, that the poems in Without speak.
"In the beginning," writes Adrienne Rich in her long poem "Sources," "we grasp whatever we can / to survive," and the poems of Without scintillate with Wade’s scrupulous yet extravagant sensitivity to the sparks individual words give off when struck against each other. Without also shows Wade’s poetics to be restless, protean, and capaciously capable of coalescing in a panorama of poetic forms, be they the taut lyric ("The Generalist") or the prose poem ("The Cartographer"); and she is also more than willing to abandon the shelter of the left-hand margin and venture into open field composition ("Wane"). If, as Denise Levertov claimed, form is a revelation of content, for me, the most stunning poem in this collection and its crux is the concluding "Reading Robinson Crusoe Again, For The Last Time," a poem that troubles conventional divisions between lyric and narrative and, equally, poetry and prose. Written in a long line that extends to the brink of the page, "Reading Robinson Crusoe" is a lyric-meets-narrative meditation that, for all the quietness of its crafted calm, most fiercely looks back upon the Eden of the irretrievably lost:
Your whole life, you learn a language. Before you begin to speak,
you understand what is being spoken. Before you begin to touch,
you possess a tacit knowledge of the surface of things. In time,
you learn what will burn you (stove), what will comfort you (blanket).
You sense who you can trust. You build small walls around the garden
of all that is previous, all that you hold dear. You carry the memory with
you, as you grow older, of what it means to be safe and happy and young.
"You did not imagine being stranded," Wade writes in the second stanza as she weaves her extended metaphor between Crusoe’s island and the radical vastness of losing and leaving everything and everyone behind as a result of
a conversion of sorts, an opening out of yourself onto a world that cannot
embrace you—not now, in your traitorous entirety—you, child it once
considered its own.
What is at stake here is not being lost so much as no longer belonging: "For you," Wade writes self-reflexively, "exile is essential, eternal." Yet notwithstanding the desolation that such a shipwreck portends, the state of being sung in this poem and Without as a whole is not the foregone conclusion of a solitude that breaks the spirit, though sociological statistics testify to the fact that the solitudes experienced by queer American women and men, out of the closet and inside it, can and tragically do destroy lives. But the female voice of this book is not utterly isolated; and, in fact, she is among company, although the figures standing as guardians and/or cautionary tales often occupy marginalized spaces: Sisyphus; Electra; Nimrod; pilgrims, orphans, and pirates; Zeno’s paradox; Robinson Crusoe.
Still, the island where the speaker of "Reading Robinson Crusoe" has made her dwelling place is also "its own kind of paradise" where love has indeed been found though "[a]mity and enmity have been reversed in places" and a "stranger is as true a friend as a friend, / perhaps truer." But despite the elegiac undertones shot through "Reading Robinson Crusoe," its ending eclipses elegy—"Every day you wake up with this / burden: no one will ever find you, unless you choose to be found"—and verges upon what I would call a wild hope. Having already published an award-winning memoir, a full-length volume of poetry (Postage Due), and a forthcoming collection of essays (Small Fires), Julie Marie Wade is a writer/poet who, with this latest soul-stirring chapbook, has chosen to be found.