The Poetry of William Wenthe

Distinguished Entry 2007

If I’m Reading You Right, Immanuel Mid-spring, mid-afternoon, flecked shadows of half-fledged trees . . . Compared to the book I’m struggling to follow, how easy to surrender to waxwings: their high-pitched corrugated whistlings on the air, in it, as if the light had voice, as if the chartreuse, scalloped unfurlings of new walnut leaves were talking. As if. The words distort, even as they tell me what I see and hear. They lack the philosopher’s discipline, that well-regulated man of Konigsberg, at his routine: awake at five, in his nightgown at his desk, a few coals on the raked fire for a trickle of heat, as he writes, observing the pattern of his thoughts, fine as the fractal frost on the panes that, darkened, await the northern, late, winter dawn. His days so orderly (it’s said the housewives set their clocks by his afternoon walks) that only thoughts and weather seemed to change. A vantage, almost, pure. Or so I might think, though my own thinking mystifies his sentences— the way an inside radiator’s sighs will fog to milkiness winter’s precision of light. And the waxwings, all the while, sounding their single note. They fly from holly to maple in straight lines— like something I’ve just read: that to draw a line in thought is to apprehend one thing after another; which means one moment must, he says, necessarily, he says, depend upon my holding of the moment before. He called this thought an a priori: philosophy’s reply to In the beginning, whence all arises: this phasing, this phrasing: the waxwings singing themselves into becoming, riding on their past. All this implication, this enabling— the chiasmus of when and now. Now then, by extension, as I sit in this garden, am I not—necessarily—walking a sidewalk in Manhattan, somewhere in Chelsea, near the comedy club called Catch a Rising Star? It’s audition night and my girlfriend, who’s nervous and prefers an audience of strangers, will be on stage for the first time, and I am forbidden to attend. Two ways to please her, I’m thinking, two ways to fail: one is to go in, one to stay away. I contemplate disguises . . . So then, now, if I’m reading it right, that evening’s walk is somehow requisite to this moment in the garden: crossed in the crossed limbs and shadows; hanging in cap and dark glasses in the back, in the crowd-fringe, the under-hedge where jonquils hang their hooded heads. Now, I say, and the word’s round vowel calls all my past. Still, there remains the problem of all that’s forgotten . . . the weather of that evening (I think it was spring), what the signboard in the club window said, the faces of other walkers, closed to me now as the storefronts’ rolled-down metal doors. And now, she and I are married to other persons. There’s a truth the philosopher of Reason and Judgment never faced, who kept himself away from Eros, and in this, too, was wise, guessing that love leads us to disguise the outer world with our inmost selves. How, when I come to love it, the wheezy note of the waxwing seems like a word: “here, here, here, here,” because here is what I want to hear. Or when my wife makes up our bed, and she kneels on the mattress and draws the sheets and blankets toward her— I think of the way a bird finishes its nest, from the inside. If I’m reading you right, Immanuel, it’s clear we can reason past illusions toward a wordless pure, though I fancy, too, the tumble of my days disappearing into one another, and love that dresses and undresses them in words. Words like waxwings. For Daedalus, they really worked: rising, he saw the labyrinth below, even as he’d drawn it in his thought. But for Icarus, they are only like wings, elaborate similes of what he craves . . . I picture him, with a smile, flying, just before he falls. “The way a bird . . . ,” I like to tell her by way of chattering, exchanging words that may be meaningless, but are enough to know we’re here to hear each other speak. Like waxwings’ whistlings, to tell us where we are.