Notes from the Column of Memory
by Wendy Drexler
Terrapin Books, 2022
Reviewed by Jacob Butlett
Wendy Drexler’s poetry book Notes from the Column of Memory comprises visceral nature images and unpretentious meditations on death—especially the death of Drexler’s mother. Readers will love Drexler’s polished craft choices. Most notably, her symphonic rhetoric gleans with sophistication. From poems involving her conflicted relationship with her father to poems revealing the not-so-secret lives of animals such as birds, I am impressed by the clear, developed interplay between Drexler’s observant, vulnerable speakers (embodiments of herself) and the settings that help to shape her thoughts and feelings.
Drexler develops scene after scene, poem after poem, with engrossing language (as one might expect to find in any poetry book of high caliber). In “My Father as a Taxidermied Fox,” Drexler blends nature with the personal to highlight her complicated feelings for her father, who failed to leave a strong, loving impression on his daughter:
I’ve failed to flush an ounce of you from death.
Your boundary musk, your lunge, and sprung plunge—
You staked nightly, your lair, some long-gone bramble,
________the kits you carried by the nape,
________the shadow beneath your paw.
Characteristic of many of Drexler’s poems in Notes from the Column of Memory, this poem interweaves large chunks of white space to highlight key descriptions (for example, “the shadow beneath your paw”), strengthening their emotional resonance. Assonance as well accentuates the emotional tension between father and daughter, how the father, once like a prowling animal, is now, as the poem’s title implies, frozen in time, like a troubled memory that refuses to dissipate. Specifically, it’s important to note the UH-sounds: “flush,” “musk,” “lunge,” “sprung,” “plunge.” Such low sounds effect a tone of discomfort, like someone groaning with pain, like someone invoking a problematic person from one’s past.
Indeed, throughout Notes from the Column of Memory, Drexler attempts to confront the past via present-day meditations and colorful, yet grim, references to dead people and animals. I especially recommend Drexler’s poem “Galapagos Tortoise,” in which she discusses the harvesting of the titular creature:
The ones not eaten were sold on shore,
their plates boiled, flattened for knitting
needles, bangles, tea caddies, and the comb
my father gave my grandmother.
More to the point, Notes from the Column of Memory feels haunted by her family, especially Drexler’s deceased mother and the lingering influence of her father, whose backstory remains largely unexplored, though is introduced at the start of the book. That might explain why Drexler’s poem “On the A Train, Manhattan,” which is placed near the end of the book, stands out so much: the father reappears, causing Drexler to ruminate seriously on her past:
my father, eighteen years dead, is driving me back
to my mother’s house. I’m eight, and we’re doing here is the church . . .
here is the steeple . . . pressing my fingers into the spire,
open the doors . . . all the people springing from my own
two hands, squeezing through the subway’s sliding doors,
until my father kisses me good-bye for the week, walks away.
Regardless, this haunting mood pervades even the poems in which her parents are not featured, prominently or otherwise. In “The Gannets at Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland,” she describes what appears to be a whirlwind of birds:
Barbara says there are fewer
__________nesting pairs this year. I can’t see
the missing, only the sea stack
swarming with thousands of birds, a fever
of birds, pairs nesting on narrow shelves,
racket of wind-whipped screeches and grunts,
_____the air acrid with guano.
These seven lines alone, which are delightfully clear and imagistic both technically and narratively, sing with tightly constructed craft choices. Most importantly, the sibilance in the second couplet (“sea,” “stack,” “swarming”) and the drawn-out assonance in the tercet (“wind-whipped,” “screeches,” “grunts”) convey the ever-growing, deeply rooted dismay of the speaker (aka, Drexler herself).
Even when Drexler uses a more lighthearted mood (her poem “Bluebird” comes to mind), the central, dark atmosphere of the book holds my attention all the way through, proving that an expert development of mood or tone can be a formidable and laudable thematic motif—a rhetorical structure of pathos, in a matter of speaking, readers can use to follow along with a text more easily.
Emotion is expressed to great theatrical effect in Drexler’s “Burial of a Woman with the Blackened Shells of 86 Tortoises,” my favorite poem in the book. In this seven-part poem, aptly placed in the collection’s midpoint, Drexler describes a corpse, leading to a multifaceted reflection including several prominent motifs, including familial woe. Speaking directly to her late-mother, Drexler discloses the following in one of the most dramatic moments in the book:
I forget what you said (forgive me), I didn’t listen
until now, your voice in your letters, 50 years ago,
it’s clear that something sharp had come between us—
barbs, worry, wishes, and warnings and scolds.
Closing my eyes, I smell your geraniums, the ones
with leaves like tongues, their ruddy scent. Your knack
for tackling dandelions. You loved your hands
in dirt. To nurture growth meant pinching back
the blooms. All those years you circled my pool—
stay out of the deep end, stay out of the sun.
Anyone who has lost a loved one will appreciate Drexler’s sentiment: unfortunately, people sometimes regret not cherishing loved ones enough while their loved ones are still alive. Ultimately, the specific diction in the poem—for example, “Closing my eyes, I smell your geraniums, the ones / with leaves like tongues, their ruddy scent”—inspires me to empathize with Drexler and relate to her outlook on life.
Everyone should read Notes from the Column of Memory, especially those who appreciate poems rathe with sensory-filled images and dramatic, personal pathos. Drexler ends the book on a remarkable note, indirectly inviting readers to be mindful of where their lives are heading and to not discount sorrow, a feeling that can precede personal growth. In “All the Hours the Night Has Left,” she declares:
The first time I heard a concerto, and someone
told me what makes a key minor
is the lowered third, I listened to the sorrow
for myself. At last I can name it:
brokenness, beauty, the way through.