I’ve come to contemporary poetry late in my life. Just a few years shy of half a decade, I began to study its craft—both as a reader and as a writer. I was first introduced to the brilliance of Robert Wrigley’s work through his poem “Ode to My Boots,” from Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems. In this poem, Wrigley’s narrator draws on a long tradition of odes—Greek, Latin, English—and uses it to pay homage to a pair of ordinary boots, what the narrator calls his “foot hovels.” What struck me upon reading this poem, and what I continue to find in Wrigley’s work, is the enormous amount of love his narrators feel for the matter-of-fact stuff of everyday life. The boots are the leather, the laces, the soles, and the heels, yes—all of which is described with great care and curiosity, as only a masterful poem can do. And yet they are also more than the boots themselves: they are the narrator’s “history of … walking,” wherein a boot is not only its physical materials, but what it has done, and more importantly, “where … they may yet take” him.
It was in that spirit that I approached his recent essay collection, Nemerov’s Door: I was hoping to find love on the page, and I was not disappointed. His essays run the gamut in terms of material—everything from ruminations on the legacy and difficulty of Frank Sinatra; to a line-by-line explication and cultural (one might even say feminist) analysis both of Plath’s “Poppies in October” as well as the infamous melody “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady; to hunting for, and then not hunting for, arrowheads alongside the rivers of Idaho; to his boyhood alongside the Mississippi River of Illinois and Missouri; to a fascination with language that is equally evident when he dissects Robert Frost as when he speaks of his young son’s developing vocabulary (“Language,” he writes, “is how we process what we think and feel, and how we know what we see.”); and to his close, close readings of several of his favorite poems, what is evident in this collection is Wrigley’s love of—and admiration for—the ways in which humans use language as a way to explain—to ourselves and to each other—what it means to be alive.
For Wrigley, this love of life is best exhibited through our actions. Our thoughts only matter inasmuch as they lead us to certain activities, certain acts of creation. In his essay on searching for arrowheads in the canyon of the Clearwater River, in north central Idaho, he reflects on the creative process: “I have known for most of my life that making, the making of anything worthwhile, is a function of patience. Whether it’s making a baseball break or driving it into the gap for extra bases, reading or writing a poem, you have to wait for it. You have to let it show itself to you.” In comparing his attraction to poetry to his attraction to arrowheads, he reflects further: “Somehow—I don’t really know how—I wanted to live that way. I wanted to make something that mattered. Not an arrowhead, but something the arrowhead was analogous to. Small, beautiful, and useful.”
Circling back to arrowheads at the very end of this collection, Wrigley has included his poem Arrowhead: to my children, an essay; as an explanation of Idaho, in which the speaker attempts to gather together the mass of contradictions that exist in the state (both literal and figurative): “an embarrassment and a joy,” “That it has a town called Dixie // … but also a Yankee Fork,” “That at its least elevations / the temperature will reach 120 degrees / every summer, and at certain of its summits / the snow, until recently, never went away.” The speaker, later in the poem, likens living in Idaho to “living in an abusive relationship: / there is always the hope it will get better.” To the speaker of Arrowhead, the pain of colonialism, of indigenous slaughter, of racism and colorism, is very much on the page—even as he acknowledges the natural magnificence of Idaho that keeps him very much rooted in place, very much enamored of what the physical landscape can teach him.
Wrigley’s love of place is evident in all of his essays—even the ones that aren’t about a place per se, but a person, like Frank Sinatra, James Dickey, or his own father. The powerfully evocative eponymous essay, “Nemerov’s Door,” is, first and foremost, a love letter to Wrigley’s father.
The narrator describes his father as “a working man, a long-time civilian employee for the Air Force, and he wore a workingman’s clothes and fell asleep at the end of a long day on the job in the same easy chair he would sit in later, after dinner, listen to records before leaving for his night job selling cars.” Wrigley’s father loved cars—by Wrigley’s best estimates, his father owned over 90 cars during his lifetime. So it is fitting then that the scenes between Wrigley and his father that feel the most palpable to us are those that take place in an automobile: the young Wrigley wearing short pants, his legs sticking to the leather, riding in the front seat of a white Mercury between his father and uncle listening to Sinatra singing “All the Way,” or the twenty-eight-year old Wrigley being driven by his father in his father’s “favorite car ever: a 1975 BMW 2002” across the river to St. Louis, where the destination is a bookstore so that Wrigley the newly-aspiring poet will be able to augment his meager poetry collection: “It’s 1979 …. you and your father are flying down I-70 west towards St. Louis, at a silken eighty miles per hour. He draws your attention to the purr of the BMW’s engine as you go. He always does that.” From the scene in the bookstore where the father gives his son all the time in the world to choose his poetry books while himself perusing the World War II history section to the entire point of the essay – when Wrigley’s father convinces his son that they should just “head over” to Washington University to find the esteemed poet, Howard Nemerov—we feel the love and admiration Wrigley had for his father.
Standing at the door to Nemerov’s office, the narrator remembers: “If there is anything on the door—cartoon, witty quote, a poem, the usual sorts of things seen on professors’ doors everywhere—you don’t notice it. Probably there’s a nameplate. But you hesitate. You’re nervous …. It seems pointless. And there may be something else too. Embarrassment? Is it because you’re here with your father, which would seem to make you as much child as poet?” It is this processing of his younger feelings on the page that reveals, finally, what the older Wrigley now fully understands: even recognizing his own limitations around poetry, his father—a car lover, a civil servant, a suburban father, and a Frank Sinatra enthusiast—still wanted to be a part of his son’s world: poetry. He wanted to witness his son actively engaged in that which brought him joy, and fulfillment.
It seems as though Wrigley has spent the rest of his career—and his life—trying to do just that, and we are all the better for it.
Nemerov’s Door, by Robert Wrigley. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, April 2021. 176 pages. $19.95, paper.
Francesca Moroney lives and works alongside her five teenagers and three large dogs in southwestern Illinois. In addition to writing poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews, she teaches Level 1 and Memoir Writing for The Writers Studio. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review, Crosswinds, and Asesthetica Magazine, as well as additional online, literary journals.