In his Author’s Note to Winter’s Skin Tom Wayman asserts that reading Neruda in translation triggers him, causing “idea after idea to surface in that part of my consciousness where a poem insists it be written.” Yet this experience is every poet’s, surely – the act of writing poetry comes from reading it rather than from nature or life, and Tom is maybe the first to describe this accurately: the “surfacing,” the “insistence.”
He calls his poems, like Neruda’s, elegiac, and Winter’s Skin has the tranquility of a seasoned poet and a gentle man. It is unattached and yet personal the way all honest writing must be personal – there is no provocation or striving, and the overall effect of the poems is as still and pristine as the photographs that accompany them.
He writes himself into private territory, where I find it painful to follow simply because it is so intimate and recognized. “The Shadow” begins “I don’t know why I grew up to be such a coward.” His candour is almost heartbreaking as he describes how “unable to bear to cause pain” yet convinced that his “heart’s baffling errands” (called “frightened wanderings into an orchard”) would be hurtful, he has been dishonest and so done harm.
It is as if, by his stepping out of the spotlight of ego, the best of these poems become personal and universal. But sometimes he deliberately steps too far, as in “Anti-Soul” or the long Donneish conceit “Cartographic” about the geography of the beloved’s body – this is an awful poem – detached by its very language; its Latinisms, lack of imagery and strings of long substantives are wearisome to wade through.
But read him for the subtlety of his voice and his eye for the natural world, the vivid newness of his imagery: how as he walks a ruffed grouse suddenly “detonates” nearly beneath his feet, “the moon stalls / suspended”, swans rise “exhaling /the mouth of the world”. Read him too for his spooky temporal incongruities: “Later on the morning that I died”; “Outside, it was winter overnight / it will be winter this afternoon/ it will be winter all evening”; “blood’s integrity / that could not be restored / until I had never been born.”
Tom Wayman is a sweet poet. He calls himself “abashed”, a word that somehow gives the essence, for me, of this uneven but wonderful book.
Heather Spears, Canadian writer and artist. Lives in Denmark. Fourteen collections of poetry, five novels, three books of drawings, one (first of four) NF about drawing. Lowther Memorial Award (3 times), Governor General’s Award.
AH, THE SWEET POETRY OF ARC!