Of all the universal threads, art and love are perhaps the most similar. Subjective and enigmatic, both impact every individual in some way, across centuries, across cultures, and across continents. Both possess boundless potential for form and expression. Most important, both have the power to transform our views of reality and the world.
William Wenthe’s third collection of poetry, Words Before Dawn, is interwoven with both of these threads. Between bookends of poems on parenthood (its own unique and moving tale of love), the collection captures the world at large and presents it to the reader as something wholly original, as if newly hatched. In free verse, prose poems, and traditional meter, Wenthe situates the rough beauty of the broader world beside the intimacies of familial devotion, illustrating the ways in which art and love connect and ground us. Here, we touch moments both large and small.
At the beginning and end of the Words Before Dawn, Wenthe writes from the perspective of a new father. In the hour before dawn, spent with his infant daughter, Wenthe notes how the word uhte, for which the poem is named,
has haunted me—wondering how that hour
had first called forth a need
to be distinguished by a sound.
Did that first, faint ash of light
augur grief, or gratefulness: uht-care
of the lamenting wife, or uht-song
of the monk’s orison? For me,
in this fulcrum hour, it’s a balance
between body’s sleep-longing, and rest-
lessness of mind.
By this early light, Wenthe foreshadows the poems to follow: meditations on nuances in history, of culture, and of the natural world.
Wenthe’s poems call attention to the subtle ways in which perspective can shift perception. A large city shrinks down to a single street; mundane moments explode in a rush of beauty. In “Stone On Stone: Israel, 1980”:
Two Bedouin women, seated on paving stones old as Herod, only their eyes
and hands appearing from robes and veils. For sale on a blanket before them,
cheeses wrapped in palm leaves. White as bone, dry as sand, tasting mainly of
Sirocco—sandy grit in the teeth. A sunbird hovering by the tumbling springs of
Ein Gedi. And in the desert, by the border with Jordan, the Indian silverbill
nests in the razor wire.
Through this cinematic zooming in and panning out, Wenthe’s pictures of the world become revelatory in both their panoramic scope and intricate detail.
Another example of this cinematic quality is found in “Canard,” the last in a sequence of poems about the Russian jeweler Karl Fabergé:
the Bolsheviks have banned
that art be representative.
What to make, then, of this objet
de fantaisie? A salt-cellar, crafted
in the form of a bidet—
a functional vessel
designed to represent
a vessel for bodily function.
Sepia and opalescent
enamel over turned gold
simulate the seat-back of brocade,
with seed-pearls for tacks;
its gold legs and frame
support a bowl of Siberian jade.
This close study of such an elaborate object through the wider, darker lens of war magnifies its splendor while simultaneously calling into question the very relevance of art. All the while, we stare in fascination.
Fans of Wenthe’s previous collections, Not Till We Are Lost and Birds of Hoboken will also find many birds in this book, such as in the villanelle “Bird Market on the Île de la Cité”:
Plumed crowns and crests, collars, bands, and rings;
turquoise, coral, saffron; feathered iridescence
to provide us with loveliness: prisoned little things
that do no work, and yet are robed like kings.
Seeds and sawdust, though, their meek inheritance,
crowded in wire cages. Some still sing—
Even though Wenthe’s verse is serious and reflective, the collection is punctuated with moments of humor, such as in “Great-Tailed Grackle”:
How you huff your shoulders
like a bodybuilder, lower
your head, crane your neck
till feathers prickle,
and yellow eyes boggle
—two whistles, lark-sweet,
a radio static crackle
and hiss, a bacon-fat
squeal and gurgle, punctuated
by a sort of self-inflicted
The divergence of the collection’s tone—from the intimate view of a new parent to that of international traveler and back again—may feel disjointed to some. But just as parenthood is an opportunity to re-examine the world and be moved by moments that might previously have gone unnoticed, so is the experience of the reader in the hands of a capable poet. Trust him. Through Wenthe’s attentive eyes, Words Before Dawn takes us from the warmth of the nursery on an extensive, unhurried tour, flush with all the grit and the grace of the wider world, then brings us safely home again.
William Wenthe is the author of Not Till We Are Lost and Birds of Hoboken. He has published widely in literary journals, and has received Pushcart Prizes and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Born and raised in New Jersey, he now teaches at Texas Tech University.
Christine Orchanian Adler’s poetry has appeared in Inkwell Journal; Coal: A Poetry Anthology; Penumbra; Tipton Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Her articles, essays, and book reviews have appeared throughout the Northeastern United States and Canada. She blogs at www.feedalltheanimals.blogspot.com, and lives in New York.