Monday, April 27, 2020

The Davids Inside David
by Sarah Wetzel
(Terrapin Books, 2019)

Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach

Art permeates poetry in Sarah Wetzel’s third book, The Davids Inside David. But if you think that means you are going to get oversized marble statues, or every depiction of Jesus’ suffering in painstaking detail, you are mistaken. These poems dig in and explode out, seeing artworks from new angles, tangling ancient art with modern life, and finding new wisdom in the interaction.

Wetzel’s poems take place in Italy and Spain, at the edge of the sea, and with people you meet in a bar. But mostly they take place in front of art. In addition to the titular David, St. Bartholomew, St. Thomas, Mary, Eve, and many others confront the speaker with their beauty, boredom, and their complex choices. Wetzel vividly brings those characters and objects to the page, as in “The Marble Fawn and Other Anecdotes of Excess,” where Wetzel writes of “Muscled calves and overworked thighs, neck thick with the / weight of wineskins and ferrying baby goats.” First, she brings what she sees to the page—the muscles. But as she imagines the neck straining under all the wine he carried, her poem becomes a commentary on the excess and sexuality in the art. In “A Case for Resurrection,” Wetzel vividly shows us catacombs, “six vestibules / of ulnas and humerus, hundreds of skulls architected / into arches,” so we can see the bones she sees, but the line actually starts “This might be what Nabokov meant when he said art / is equal parts beauty and pity.” That sentence layers moral weight on to what she describes.

Often, Wetzel finds new meaning in art by weaving in personal and modern-day associations. “In Caravaggio Copying Caravaggio,” the speaker notes:

    The guard beating Christ seems incompetent; he's not putting his back into it.
    Like the middle-aged man who bagged my groceries this morning at Kroger.

    I've just been released from prison, he told me.

Two types of incompetence, the beating and the bagging, form an intersection of art and life, but then they cross back as the bagger's life story makes the reader wonder about the guard, why he holds back. The real world that Wetzel brings to the art encourages a slow, recursive, and rewarding read of her work.

Worlds become even more entwined in her poem, “Of Myself a Basilica” when the speaker becomes a cathedral:

                                    my hips
    and buttocks, coarse-crystaled and my waist
    serpentine, circumscribed with mosaics, ribboned
    in gold-layered tesserae.

The dream logic of surrealism that Wenzel uses here, combined with the alliteration of words like “serpentine,” and “circumscribed”—emphasize the image of a person becoming art, the language swirling around the reader like an incantation.

There is a wide spectrum of tones in the voices in these poems—calm, practical, awed, surprised—but there is a wisdom to the speaker in some poems that is particularly effective. Wetzel makes big announcements, “I have to start paying attention,” "There's always confusion about / who to blame,” and "I suppose, I'm terrified too," that come as a surprise in the midst of rich description and yet feel earned. She does this again in "Regarding the Beauty of Cockroaches" (a title I feel plays off the title of the book) where the poem opens with children looking at a box of mummified cockroaches at an art exhibit in a museum. The poem moves from setting, description, and dialogue, to background information about cockroaches and then leaps to the Wallace Stevens quote: "How does one stand / To behold the sublime?” For me, this poem holds so much of what I appreciate in Wetzel's work: grand pronouncements grounded in the real and infused with art.

The Davids Inside David is a well-crafted book. This is true of not just the sections, which have a helpful coherence—a section on divorce, a section on a father—but in the transitions between poems. Wenzel ends one poem with a father on his knees and the next poem starts with a daughter on her knees. Another poem ends “like the face of a first love appearing / in a crowd and then gone” and the next one begins “They are here. All of them.” So, what was lost at the end of the last poem comes back in the next. The transitions create flow and dimensions that leap between the divides.

This book considers silences, family, thoughts on the meaningful life and the creation of empathy, but it does so mostly by examining art’s role in our lives. How do we touch art and how does art enter us? As Wentzel writes in “Like St. Thomas,” “you’ve got to reach your whole hand / into the body.” Wentzel reaches far into the body art, and we all come up richer for it.