World As You Left It
By Helen Wickes
Sixteen Rivers Press, 2015
90 Pages, $16.00
Reviewed by Melanie Tague
An almost inescapable facet of poetry is the elegy and Helen Wickes’s most recent collection, World As You Left It, addresses this head on. The collection as a whole serves as an elegy to Wickes’s deceased parents as well as her memories of them and other parts of her life.
The collection is composed of five sections, each section explores a different part of the speakers experience with the loss of their father. The first section, “So I Stole It” begins with the poem “Walking After Sunrise” which positions the reader alongside the speaker as we are invited to take a journey through or be “folded” into a lifetime of memories with the speaker:
…the winter landscape folding all of us into memory—
you, me, thin sunlight, and the goofy delirious dogs
Wickes paces the book well and doesn’t push the reader into any memory or moment; rather, she takes her time orienting us to her world. The second poem, “New Moon over Jennersville” ends, “ Wherever home is, / tonight, I‘m on my way. And we as readers are on our way with the speaker.
In sections two and three “Keep the Strings A-Flying” and “Swept Up All the Words” serves as a dramatic monologue that largely calls forth the elegized “you” and questions what one is to do when the life they have built has been dismantled and swept away. However, in section two’s opening poem “Daedalus” the speaker takes on the persona of the deceased father who is addressing their own death and how they “ached “for it seeing death as a “thing of wonder”, the father’s persona says:
For everything I make, something’s unmade.
Hurled west—old artificer—I unfurled my fingertips, which ached
for the next thing of wonder fated for me to set loose…
The poem, “In This Afterlife” is a page long single utterance that likens memories to death and a form of the afterlife it begins. Using “they” to represent memories Wickes discusses how memories shift once the person you are remembering enters the afterlife:
They walk, but it’s not quite walking—
I’d say they approach, with eagerness, not exactly
As you remember them, but somehow
better—at ease—having arrived at the essential
comfort they longed for, so unattainable
Sections four and five “Can’t You Hear That Flower” and “Combing the Pasture For a Horse” meditates on memory and the construction of what Wickes calls a “memory palace” where memory can live and die, be lost or found.
One of Wickes’s most effective tools throughout this collection is her use of enumerations as a way to present readers with the vastness of her memories in an approachable and comprehensible way. The reader is presented with snapshots via use of lists of memories from the speaker’s childhood such as in “Earning My Keep” which begins:
Sold Almond Joys, in eighth-grade snack shop,
nannied three brats, their mommy too,
one long Connecticut summer…
This continues throughout the section, in “Goldfish” the speaker talks of winning goldfish at the fair and as she remembers life with them she begins to liken them to her ailing parents:
They ate my brew: wings of a fly, petal of aster,
chewed-up flake of oat. Endured incantations:
don’t die today, don’t die tonight.
The poem ends with the speaker talking of tossing the goldfish into the pond and then addressing the loss of the place where they grew up and the memories or “goldfish” that were left behind:
Other people bought the farm and slicked it up.
If they ever dredge the pond, a huge, satin-flanked
ghost fish will rise to greet them.
In the final section Wickes constructs a memory palace for the memories of her childhood, her mother, and her father. The first poem is titled “The Memory Palace” and it explains to the reader how you construct and explore a memory palace:
Sometimes you start with the room, that place
of four walls, the door, tall windows looking out,
one to the west, one south, enough light for joy.
Sometimes you have to start with the room itself
and not worry how the hours passed, how the room
belongs to the house…
Wickes explains that once the palace is constructed you will find memories there “which you know quite well—“ In “Memory Palace II” Wickes explores how the memory palace doesn’t guarantee that memories will not be lost or replaced with other things. Wickes writes of a photo that of her and her father “from years ago” when he “looked so happy” as they went for a walk:
…I make this up from memory—
not remembering the day we went walking—
I only remember the picture. I had it and lost it,
The poem ends: “…I was small. The day / must have been sunny. I’ve lost my only picture.”
World As You Left It needs to tell the story of a lost father and of lost memories as well as warn the reader that for every moment of life lived another memory is created and another memory dies if we do not stop to experience and revel in the life we have, “One crow, then another, / calls out, and three of us stop to listen.”