Brimming with life and color, Mark Wunderlich’s collection The Earth Avails* is the perfect book to read on Earth Day. In these poems, the natural world is both celebrated and mourned in a speaker’s voice that is sometimes measured, sometimes impassioned, and always thoughtful.
In his Notes on the poems, Mr. Wunderlich explains that upon reading a nineteenth-century small book of German prayers found in his family’s home, as well as Heaven-letters, “folk-religious documents” from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he adapted these documents into poems (69). Roughly half the poems in The Earth Avails take the form of prayers or Heaven Letters; in their posture of supplication, in their evocations of simple desires (“spare the orchards from hail”), they nonetheless suggest that the power addressed is the power of language itself, building in rumbling, crescendoing couplets.
In adapting these older forms, Mr. Wunderlich has written poems with an utterly fluid sense of time. A poem might include charms against flooding or pests or disease — common enough nineteenth-century agrarian concerns — but then mention at its end a detail that places the poem in a contemporary world. The juxtaposition is pleasantly jolting, showing us just how rooted we are in the past — and how far we are from it — while offering the promise that the sense of connection to the land we think we’ve lost could be recovered.
Many of the poems reflect the landscape, both interior and exterior, of Mr. Wunderlich’s home in the Hudson Valley. The word that kept coming to mind as a I read was “renovation,” not only in the sense of rebuilding a structure, like the house here with its “crumbling cow-hair plaster mending the wall,” but also in its etymological sense of “to make new again.” The poems in The Earth Avails make the natural world new again, giving us fresh eyes to see the coyote with mange, or “the green worms / ciphering the cabbages’ leaves” or the wild boar’s “rusty wool along the belly.” These poems reflect engagement with other nature poets (Robert Frost came to mind more than once, and “Sand Shark” would be a perfect companion piece for anyone teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”), and since I’ve just read The Poetic Species, I couldn’t help thinking about the ways in which this volume works at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences.
I think you can probably tell that I loved these poems. I highly recommend The Earth Avails.
The featured poem of the week is “Prayer for a Birthday,” by Mark Wunderlich, which appears in The Earth Avails. You can read the poem, and a short comment from the poet, on Poets.org.
*My thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.