Home » criticism, Poetry

The King

By (February 26, 2009) No Comment

The King
Rebecca Wolff
Norton, 2009

Being pregnant, giving birth, and raising a child is both the most mundane of processes and the most miraculous. In the hands of the wrong poet, it is a subject that can be reduced to some pretty self-important drivel. Luckily, Rebecca Wolff seems well-aware of this danger, so much so, in fact, that she acknowledges it in the collection’s opening poem, “Tonal Pattern”:

Mothers to be on the floor
in a ring

A ring of mothers to be
singing a progression.

But taking her own tail
up the ass
might interfere with the fetus.

But by no means does Wolff avoid the challenges presented by her subject matter. In the first of the sections titled THE BABY, she bravely notes the god-like power a mother, by definition, possesses: “There’s something ineffable I do / to make the baby grow / a day older.” She does, however, wisely temper such observations, in this case by naming the poem “Excitations of the Banal,” balancing the earthly and divine aspects of being a mother.

At times, though, Wolff refuses to mute her treatment of the darker moments of motherhood. In “The Letdown,” she fearlessly admits, “it’s like I lost the baby / it’s not like I lost the baby / at the beginning I wished / sometimes I’d lost the baby.” Instead of building ethos with self-awareness, here Wolff does so through an honesty that we arrive at through her formal control. Her line breaks and lack of capitalization and punctuation act together to create at once a sense of reluctance and inevitability— a realization towards which we wish we weren’t falling.

Because of her expert treatment of a difficult topic, and because of her subtle and surprising formal decisions, Wolff’s The King feels like a major work by a major poet, owing and living up to its lineage: Plath, Rich, and Glück.

– Chris Tonelli