Wagoner’s After the Point of No Return

I’ve been reading David Wagoner’s poetry almost as long as I’ve been reading poetry. He’s certainly the first contemporary poet I ever read. He taught a freshman English class I took at the University of Washington, and at the beginning of the class I went to the University Bookstore and bought his first two books of poetry. So, when his latest book, After the Point of No Return, came out there was never a doubt I would have to buy it, too. Old habits are hard to break, particularly since I’ve long identified with Wagoner’s poetry, especially those poems which center on the Pacific Northwest and are “nature” poetry. In fact, I sometimes think he’s not recognized enough for his nature poetry because he’s such a prolific poet who seems ready to turn almost any subject into a poem.

Personally, though, I almost invariably prefer the nature poems and the poems where he seems to focus on his own personal life to the clever but, for me, less moving poems like “Marksmanship” which cleverly describes a shooting range but leaves no lasting impression, and even leaves me wondering if he’s ever fired at such a range. I’ll have to admit that when you’re as familiar with someone’s poetry as I am with Wagoner’s it’s hard to find a poem that really moves you, especially on major themes. It’s easy to get a sense of deja vu. I couldn’t avoid that feeling for many of the poems, but luckily there are still poems that grabbed my attention.

“Meeting a Stranger,” though, isn’t a typical Wagoner poem; in fact, it reminds me more of a favorite Mark Strand Poem I’ve written about previously, “The Tunnel.”

You find a path. You follow it
It turns as faint as you are.
You see this stranger
walking toward you
from nowhere and frowning
as if you shouldn’t be there
but should get out of the way.
You realize you’ve been talking
to yourself, even singing.
You’ve broken his silence
by breaking yours.
You lower your eyes.
You turn your face aside.
You smile. You offer him
your no-longer-bleeding,
more or less clean hand.
He shakes his head.
He keeps his distance.
He edges around you.
You try to tell him
you’re lost. Nothing but breath
comes out of your mouth and his.

Perhaps I found this poem appealing because I’ve spent considerable time the last few weeks looking back over old photos and have often been pleasantly surprised by them, nearly as often as I’ve been unpleasantly surprised by how bad some I published on my blog seen in retrospect. It’s comforting to see ourselves as a single person, an integrated whole, but it’s hard to hold to that myth when we actually compare our past work and our past actions to our present attitudes and beliefs.

Perhaps even more to the point is that “After the Point of no Return” many of us naturally begin to question our goals in life. The path taken becomes more and more obscure as we travel on until there’s hardly any sense of direction left at all, just the mechanical, plodding step after step. Some of us find ourselves talking to ourselves, (personally, I still contend I’m just talking to my old companion, Skye who has left me a little behind).

Perhaps meeting yourself heading in the opposite direction, working at cross purposes to yourself, is the ultimate recognition you really don’t know where you’re going, not a fact everyone will readily admit. Most of us, and particularly poets. fear when “nothing but breath/comes out of your mouth and his.” We all want to tell our “truths” and have others listen.

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