Mark Wunderlich's Blog

Jonathan Farmer reviews The Earth Avails in Slate.com

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Blind, known and read across the continent but no longer able to fulfill his duties or his calling without help, worried that he would never begin, much less complete, the epic poem that awaited him, John Milton wrote a sonnet. Its final line counsels humility in the voice of Patience, whose thundering pentameter sounds downright Miltonic: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The ambivalence is stunning. The same force that slams the door on ambition reasserts Milton’s authority. It’s hard to imagine anyone could stand and wait for long.

“Listening, Sister Ann said, is a memorable form of love.”

The best Christian poems—and much of Christian prayer—tend to wind up in similar places: Failure becomes success; success, failure. We try to turn away from our earthliness, but our prayers embody our appetites. In a time when the double edge of progress cuts so wide and deep, the charged language of prayer can help us register our dividedness in voices that make us whole, whether the author in question is an atheist or a priest.

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Mark Wunderlich, an atheist, sets roughly half the poems in The Earth Availsin the form of prayers, seeking powerful images of our frailty on an Earth that will prove stronger than us, even if we destroy it. And with The Road to Emmaus Spencer Reece, an Episcopal priest, offers pastoral attention to the wounded and discarded of the world—including, frequently, himself.

For Wunderlich, much of prayer’s dramatic potential plays out in its imperative mood, the way the language of petition wavers between submission and command. In the case of “Dwell in My House,” the tension is especially, but not entirely, erotic:

Build your room inside me, for I do suffer.
When I am sleepless and tally what I have lost,
or when I feel for nodes swelling in my groin,
lay your hand upon my brow and shut the hot lids of my eyes.
When I hurry to lock my door, stay my hand.
When I see my aging, childless body,
bring me back to the company I keep.
All this will be taken from me, this I know.
Author Mark WunderlichAuthor Mark Wunderlich.

Courtesy of Nicholas Kahn

There’s a strange and, for me, compelling mix of poise and exposure running through these lines. It’s interesting to imagine how different they would sound stripped of both their divine audience and the slightly archaic language (“stay my hand”) that audience allows. What feels exposed here might instead feel self-centered; what feels representative might merely feel vain. In prayer, though, he is both humbled and enlarged.

These poems seem to find their images in an older world—one where human technologies were powered by the labor of humans and their animals. The book’s most contemporary poem, “Driftless Elegy,” is the exception that exposes the rule; it looks at the present tense of his hometown in southwestern Wisconsin exclusively in terms of damage and decline. When, approaching the poem’s conclusion, he writes:

I am the end of a genetic line—a family dies with me.
This is hardly a tragedy. We are not an impressive group,
in intellect or physical form. With weak hearts, myopic,
we paddle lazily down the human genome,
pausing to root briefly here on the riverbank
in the shade of these limestone bluffs.

He may be speaking about more than just himself—though humanity does impress him, maybe most so when we are weak. In prayer, the speaker of these poems reveals his powerlessness, nowhere more so than those moments when he wishes for power. Borrowing from the Christian tradition, Wunderlich has imagined a way to make the unmistakable ambition of his writing align with his wish for a more humble image of human life.

Wunderlich’s poems incorporate charms and prayers - Columbia-Greene Media: News

Upcoming events for The Earth Avails.

April 2, 2014, 7:00 PM.  Grolier Poetry Bookshop, Cambridge, MA.  Reading and book signing with Cate Marvin.  (Click for more).

April 5, 2014, 4:00 PM.  Clermont State Historic Site, James D. Livingston Library, Germantown, NY.  Reading and book signing.  (Click for more).  

April 6, 2014, 4:00 PM.  Roeliff Jansen Community Library, Hillsdale, NY.  Reading and book signing.  (Click for more).  

April 8, 2014, 7:00 PM.  Prairie Lights, Iowa City, IA.  Reading and book signing with Andrew Zawacki.  (Click for more).  

April 12, 2014, 1:00 PM.  Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, USC Campus, Los Angeles, CA. Reading and book signing.   (Click for more).

April 23, 2014, 7:00 PM.  Literature Evening, Bennington College, Franklin Living Room. Reading and conversation.  (Click for more).

April 26, 2014.  SLANT reading series, Evansville, IN.  (Click for more).  

April 28, 2014, 6:00 PM.  Cornelia Street Cafe, New York, NY. Reading and book signing.  (Click for more).   

May 3, 2014, Hudson Opera House Gala, Hudson, NY.  Reading.  (Click for more).  

More events coming soon!  

From Band of Thebes

The Earth Avails by Mark Wunderlich

AvailsBuy this book. Like so many stars — Raymond Carver, Jeffrey Eugenides, Robert Stone, Allan Gurganus, Justin Torres, Jesmyn Ward, Tobias Wolff, Stacey D’Erasmo, Vikram Seth, Ron Hansen, Scott Turow, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Harriet Doerr, Wendell Berry, Thom Gunn, and Andy Towle — Mark Wunderlich was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Out this month, his third collection The Earth Avails was a pre-pub favorite on Thebes’ queer lit poll. It comes ten years after his second, Voluntary Servitude, (“haunting, bold, memorable”—Mark Doty) and fifteen years after his Lammy-winning debut, The Anchorage. PW already selected The Earth Avails as a Book of the Week with a starred review saying, “Humility, practicality, self-chastisement and hope emerge, in unrhymed couplets, musical paragraphs, and stately free verse, through language at once restrained and humane… Wunderlich became known for warm, urbane poems, often of same-sex eros. Here he switches his stylistic allegiance to plainspokenness, to the speech of the hills and plains, striking a hard-to-match tone of gentle humility, expanding his poetic powers.” Arthur Sze calls it, “terrific.”

Heaven Sent
by Nina Shengold
The stone house near Catskill, set back up a long snowy driveway, suggests a church with its peaked roof and leaded-glass windows. The sacrament practiced within is writing poetry.
Mark Wunderlich stands in the doorway, wearing a black jacket over a collarless shirt, jeans, and boiled wool slippers; a black cat slinks around his legs. The white room is impeccably neat, with a double row of antlers over the mantle, and the scent of unfurling hyacinths.
Despite the fire in the woodstove, the house is cold; Wunderlich has barely been under its roof. He flew home last night after reading from his just-published The Earth Avails (Graywolf, 2014) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and spent all day at Sarah Lawrence, where he’s guest teaching this semester in addition to his long-term job at Bennington College. Tomorrow he’ll leave before dawn to continue his book tour in California.
If all this travel exhausts him, he’s hiding it well. Affable and articulate, he settles into a chair by the fire to talk about The Earth Avails and the home that inspired it, which he bought with his former partner James 11 years ago. They’d been living in subsidized artist housing in Provincetown, but found Cape Cod real estate prices “impossible.” Next stop, Hudson Valley.
Built in 1715 and restored by a former owner, the stone house had become derelict. Pipes had frozen, raccoons had moved in, and the snow-covered mound outside the front door was a midden of trash, including three Christmas trees still strung with lights.
Though the realtor urged them toward more upscale properties, they fell in love with the house’s good bones, and spent seven years fixing it up. When they split “very amicably” two years ago, Wunderlich stayed.
The Earth Avails was “born out of the renovation and restoration of the house.” As they removed literal layers of history, Wunderlich kept a box of vintage wallpapers, linoleum, blacksmith nails, old glass bottles, a straight razor. When they removed a wall, exposing insulation made from cow hair, “it released this animal smell from 200 years ago,” he marvels; a poem opens:
Dwell in my house. Take up your spot in the tightest of corners, in the crumbling cow-hair plaster mending the wall
While researching the house’s lineage, he found a family will listing a weaver’s loom and two dependent slaves. Who had lived here in centuries past, he wondered, and what was the fabric of their daily lives? Among his findings was a folk-religious document called a Heaven-letter, which he describes as “a mix of prayer, admonition, and chain letter. They were printed as broadsides and framed for display, tucked into the family Bible, or folded and carried for luck.”
Other poems were inspired by a 19th century prayer book he found while visiting his parents in western Wisconsin. Although his ancestors settled the region in the 1830s, circa Little House in the Big Woods,Wunderlich grew up in a 1970s split-level ranch on the banks of the Mississippi.
He was raised in the United Church of Christ, “kind of a bloodless Protestantism” with roots in the Swiss Reformation; he spent summers at Bible Camp. His mother was a church elder—and an atheist. “When I asked if she saw any irony in being a top church lady and an unbeliever, she said, ‘This way, the Lord doesn’t get in my way,’” reports Wunderlich. “My father is a believer, but quite private about it.”
His father is a retired accountant; his mother taught nursing at Winona State College. They also farmed, keeping as many as 200 sheep, a herd of dairy goats, horses, and, sometimes, hogs; Wunderlich and his brother had daily chores. “I spent a lot of my childhood looking after animals,” he says, and many appear in his poems: sheep, crows, a wild boar, a mange-plagued coyote, an albino buck leaping like “a white tooth / in the closing mouth of the woods.” His language is precise, austere yet lyrical, with images that startle: overhead the dumb sky strips off / its wet shirt and tosses it to the wind’s hands.”
Read the rest of the article here.

Heaven Sent

by Nina Shengold

The stone house near Catskill, set back up a long snowy driveway, suggests a church with its peaked roof and leaded-glass windows. The sacrament practiced within is writing poetry.

Mark Wunderlich stands in the doorway, wearing a black jacket over a collarless shirt, jeans, and boiled wool slippers; a black cat slinks around his legs. The white room is impeccably neat, with a double row of antlers over the mantle, and the scent of unfurling hyacinths.

Despite the fire in the woodstove, the house is cold; Wunderlich has barely been under its roof. He flew home last night after reading from his just-published The Earth Avails (Graywolf, 2014) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and spent all day at Sarah Lawrence, where he’s guest teaching this semester in addition to his long-term job at Bennington College. Tomorrow he’ll leave before dawn to continue his book tour in California.

If all this travel exhausts him, he’s hiding it well. Affable and articulate, he settles into a chair by the fire to talk about The Earth Avails and the home that inspired it, which he bought with his former partner James 11 years ago. They’d been living in subsidized artist housing in Provincetown, but found Cape Cod real estate prices “impossible.” Next stop, Hudson Valley.

Built in 1715 and restored by a former owner, the stone house had become derelict. Pipes had frozen, raccoons had moved in, and the snow-covered mound outside the front door was a midden of trash, including three Christmas trees still strung with lights.

Though the realtor urged them toward more upscale properties, they fell in love with the house’s good bones, and spent seven years fixing it up. When they split “very amicably” two years ago, Wunderlich stayed.

The Earth Avails was “born out of the renovation and restoration of the house.” As they removed literal layers of history, Wunderlich kept a box of vintage wallpapers, linoleum, blacksmith nails, old glass bottles, a straight razor. When they removed a wall, exposing insulation made from cow hair, “it released this animal smell from 200 years ago,” he marvels; a poem opens:

Dwell in my house. Take up your spot in the tightest of corners, 
in the crumbling cow-hair plaster mending the wall

While researching the house’s lineage, he found a family will listing a weaver’s loom and two dependent slaves. Who had lived here in centuries past, he wondered, and what was the fabric of their daily lives? Among his findings was a folk-religious document called a Heaven-letter, which he describes as “a mix of prayer, admonition, and chain letter. They were printed as broadsides and framed for display, tucked into the family Bible, or folded and carried for luck.”

Other poems were inspired by a 19th century prayer book he found while visiting his parents in western Wisconsin. Although his ancestors settled the region in the 1830s, circa Little House in the Big Woods,Wunderlich grew up in a 1970s split-level ranch on the banks of the Mississippi.

He was raised in the United Church of Christ, “kind of a bloodless Protestantism” with roots in the Swiss Reformation; he spent summers at Bible Camp. His mother was a church elder—and an atheist. “When I asked if she saw any irony in being a top church lady and an unbeliever, she said, ‘This way, the Lord doesn’t get in my way,’” reports Wunderlich. “My father is a believer, but quite private about it.”

His father is a retired accountant; his mother taught nursing at Winona State College. They also farmed, keeping as many as 200 sheep, a herd of dairy goats, horses, and, sometimes, hogs; Wunderlich and his brother had daily chores. “I spent a lot of my childhood looking after animals,” he says, and many appear in his poems: sheep, crows, a wild boar, a mange-plagued coyote, an albino buck leaping like “a white tooth / in the closing mouth of the woods.” His language is precise, austere yet lyrical, with images that startle: overhead the dumb sky strips off / its wet shirt and tosses it to the wind’s hands.”

Read the rest of the article here.

at Seattle Harbor
at Seattle Ferry Terminal
Chillin’ on the way to Seattle. #AWP14
Still from the Motionpoem short film of my poem “White Fur.”  #graywolfpress #theeartavails.

The Angry Grammarian: February 2014

The second reading was Mark Wunderlich’s book launch at The Loft withGraywolf Press. His new book, The Earth Avails, is gorgeous and haunting. My favorite poem he read was a long, dreamy elegy for a home that no longer exists, and which is aptly titled “Driftless Elegy.” I had Mark sign a copy of the book, and the rumors are true: his penmanship is almost literally to die for.