I recently read Joe Weil’s fantastic collection A Night in Duluth. I highly recommend it. Here’s a piece I wrote a few years back on Joe’s volume of New and Selected Poems. Unfortunately, the periodical I was developing it for shut its doors before it was published. So, I offer it here, a little late but better than never.
Joe Weil. The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems. New York Quarterly Books, 2013.
I’m driving north on Oklahoma Highway 18 with Joe Weil in the passenger seat and his wife and infant daughter in the back. Joe is pointing out all the commonalities between central Oklahoma and his neck of the woods, New Jersey: the invasive eastern cedars, the red-tinted dirt, the working poor. He’s come 1400 miles to read at my little university just because he’s always wanted to see Oklahoma and even though he’s certainly losing money on the trip. Our previous acquaintance consists of sharing a publisher – NYQ Books – and a Facebook friendship, the highlight of which was Joe’s advice about a cracked engine block in my old car (it turned out not to be a cracked engine block). Nevertheless, here he is, tooling up highway 18, getting the grand tour of my homeland, talking about how much he has enjoyed meeting the students at our little college, smiling, gesturing excitedly: because he’s open and generous like that. He’s big-hearted like that. He is completely present, very incarnated like that. And his poems share all these qualities, which is why you should read his new and selected poems, The Great Grandmother Light.
Like Joe himself, Weil’s poems don’t shy away from showing emotion. In “Adelino” he talks about “Wolf songs,” songs that “could / pull down a man and feed on his heart,” an image that conveys well the emotional power of many of the poems in this book. The poem “Fists,” for instance, is a moving account of the poet’s complex relationship with his father. Rather than offering merely pure, “raw” emotion, however, the poem draws deeper emotional resonance by evoking the tale of Cuchulain’s accidental slaying of his own son:
When he woke, it was morning, and the hands of his son
Had become two black swans.
They flew west where all suffering ends.
I read this story
And I remember you.
Hold me clenched until I am those birds.
Until your fists can open.
Other poems look further beyond the poet’s own experiences, illustrating Joe’s great capacity for empathy as he imagines his way into the lives of people he meets along the way. “An old man tells me about Cuba. / Drunk, he talks of dice/ and mangoes,” begins the poem “At the My Fair Lady Lounge.” In “Dignity” he offers sympathy for the, perhaps inebriated, elderly woman who has just run over a dog. When I praise the empathetic ability of these poems, I mean to praise it not only as an ethical virtue but also as an aesthetic virtue. This empathy opens the poems to a broad range of compelling imagery: for instance, the berated and “perfectly bald husband / swinging his garden hose violently / in futile protest” in “The Poet as a Young Voyeur.” These are big-hearted poems, poems open to the world and to feeling. If a lot of contemporary poems walked into your neighborhood bar and sat down next to you, you’d probably get up and leave. You could smell the narcissism and claustrophobic creepiness. I would, however, like to buy a beer for any number of poems by Joe Weil.
Joe’s reputation is as a “working class poet,” and you will certainly find many poems in The Great Grandmother Light drawing on factory work and life on the economic margins of middle-class America. But the collection also adds nuance and complication to the “working class poet” label. These poems are often intellectual and always well-read. They bear particularly clear influence from the American avant-garde and from the French surrealism that in turn influenced it. For instance, in the early poem “Prelude” he tells us “this is my hand, / writhing into the void, / pulling up rabbits, / the beloved dead.” In the much later prose poem “Green Light” we are made to understand that “the voice of the midnight universe is always vaguely Southern” and that “pain calcifies in the heart, how great cathedrals in the cave of someone’s closed eyes are being formed – drop by drop, on the limestone walls of trout streams, in the caves of Kentucky.” Consistently Weil displays his awareness that poetry is and should be a strange thing. Unlike many other poets aiming for a working class ethos, he doesn’t achieve his accessibility and relevance by sacrificing surprise and playfulness. He doesn’t mistake mere mundanity for authenticity. Joe is not some hipster in a work shirt who has read a bit of Whitman and a few poems by Philip Levine, trying to make “working class” a marketable niche. He’s a real poet whose context happens to be working class and who knows, like Charles Dickens and Frank O’Hara knew, that his context, his world, is the great subject he has been given and to which he must fashion his own stylistic response. “I, too, grew up in this neighborhood,” he says in “Variations on a Theme by Isaiah,” after encountering a particularly unpleasant “little bastard” in his old neighborhood. But the ending of the poem illustrates how these poems do more that simply recount “gritty realities,” the go-to move for lesser poets looking to distinguish themselves from the middle-class crowd coming out of the MFA workshops. When Weil writes “God bless that angry little shit. / God bless this angry little shit. / This, too, is a poem of praise,” he displays an authenticity beyond simple “street cred,” a genuine desire to see eternity and redemption in his own specific, concrete world.
Mention of eternity and redemption brings me to the heart of this book, because Joe’s poems constantly ache with an awareness of the sacred, though they never look for sacredness in the never-never lands of always elsewheres or not-yet-but-somedays of lesser religious poetry. Joe’s sacred is the Catholic sacred of the sacramental, of the holy entering this world and changing it while not changing it. In the early poem “Morning at the Elizabeth Arch” poetic vision itself is a form of redemption:
The winos rise as beautiful as deer.
Look how they stagger from their sleep
as if the morning were a river
against which they contend.
. . .
At river’s edge, the deer stand poised.
One breaks the spell of his reflection
with a hoof and, struggling,
begins to cross.
The winos are both themselves and deer, as the bread is both bread and the body of Christ. The look is our invitation to take and eat. “While the World is Falling Apart, I Open a Jar of Pickles” is another fine example, a poem in which incense is replaced by “the fragrant scent of pickling / spices wafting over” the poet. Joe invests a simple, humble, and homely act with the spiritual power of sacrament, “opening a jar against all evils, the / stupid deaths, and illnesses, and failures.” This sacrament is an act of desperation and trust that makes him, to adapt Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:3, like a little child, or, to put it in Joe’s own terms, “a little boy in the near dark, bare foot / against the scarred linoleum.” The “near dark” is clearly more than a dimly lit kitchen and more than the linoleum has been or will be scarred. But, he says, “If you slice these thin enough / the veil becomes translucent.” This image literalizes holy light shining through the things of this world. Auden has taught us that “the crack in the tea-cup opens / a lane to the land of the dead,” but this is the only poem I know of in which spiritual reality is revealed by means of a pickle. It’s a strange sacrament – aren’t they all? – but it’s enough. His heart, which had earlier beat out in defiance – “fuck it all, fuck it all” – now beats in submission to an invisible order, to a knowledge of its own child-like dependence: “My heart is the only justice. It is strong. / It will do its job. It will knock and knock / until the door is opened.” This is not cheap grace or glib Jesus talk. It is a few simple words on the virtue of life rafts, penned by a man who has been far out to sea.
Back on Highway 18, Joe is telling me about his childhood, its imaginative joys and emotional suffering. He is telling me about how happy he is to be fulfilling his dream of visiting Oklahoma, wide open spaces for his wide open heart and his wide open poems. Joe Weil is a man who, as Montaigne said of himself, is “consubstantial with” his book, or perhaps transubstantial, like those winos and deer. In the devastatingly tender – yes, I said “devastatingly tender” – “About Light,” young Joe, who has just asked his mother “why are the traffic lights more red when it snows,” is told, “keep yourself a secret. / People will spit on you.” Praise be to God that Joe does not follow that well-meant advice.