Mercy Spurs the Bone by Chelsea Wagenaar


Levine Prize in Poetry (2013)

Chelsea Wagenaar is incredibly gifted and audacious; her language is constantly inventive. -- Philip Levine, from "A Look at Philip Levine: A Massachusetts Poetry Festival Feature Poet"

To "pray" is cognate with Old English fricgan, "to ask," and at the heart of each of these marvelous poems -- by turns petition, plea, praise, penance -- is a question about the mystery of incarnation. "What holds love after the body?" Wagenaar asks in "Swift Perpetua" -- the ephemera (coins, bullets, keys) extracted by a laryngologist from human throats, the anguished notes of a sonata teased on their "thin stems" from the hull of a piano by an abandoned daughter, Thomas's doubts opened to truth by touch, a woman's erotic awakening into the revelation that "to live in the body is to die in it." These poems, ever mindful of the tender mercies of the first Maker, are heir to Dickinson's paradox of grace: "I dwelt, as if Myself were out, / My Body but within / Until a Might detected me / And set my kernel in." In ardent conflation of Beloved/beloved, Wagenaar writes: "Good morning, you say, though I know it is only / because there are no names for what you feel most. / Forgive me for how I don’t know you." -- Lisa Russ Spaar

It is not often that one encounters mastery in a debut book of poems, but that is exactly what happens in Chelsea Wagenaar's Mercy Spurs the Bone, where the poems are crafted into light-filled islands of lyric selfhood, small Edens of conceptual originality and rigorously precise language. Writing in an elliptical style, Wagenaar achieves that articulation of being, that mysterious symbiosis of self and world, which is at the very heart of poetry. A double gift, then: this brilliant beginning, and more than sufficient promise of the wonders that are sure to follow. -- B.H. Fairchild



Evolutionary Advantages of Storytelling

Never mind who can hunt or outrun:
I like to think survival depends on 
who can imagine the most urgent 
metaphor for the Milky Way. 
How about: ghost's carotid artery, crease 
in God's tattered trouser. 
MRI scans show that our brains light up
like galaxies when we talk about ourselves. 
My father spent his thirtieth birthday
digging a backyard grave 
for our dog, who died that morning. 
We cried inside, pressed our runny faces
to the windows and watched all afternoon, 
hushed only when he came in to wash
his hands and blow his candles out.
Even now, years after he left,
I have never asked him what he thought about, 
shovel in hand, as he opened the earth 
behind our swingset. Did he imagine
her tail, burr-ridden, star-ridden, 
finally cosmic? We are still waiting
for him to survive. My mother recently started
a Twitter account--she calls me 
from her landline to tell me each time
she tweets something new. I updated
my status, she says. I update
my metaphor: thin gauze of her voice,
burning terraces of an ice cream cake,
one light-notched lobe.


To an Unborn Sister

     I wish I had been warned about skin,
how it breaks, peels, splits, strips.
     To you, in your buoyant underworld,

     it is only fantastical, an unnecessary sheath.
You don't know that you are breakable.
     But believe me, your knees will rip and tear

     on gravel; your knuckles will crack and ache
with cold, thumbs split on a blade of paper.
     And the blisters: don't hold a lit match

     longer than eight seconds, be sure to use potholders, 
wear socks with new shoes. Rub sunscreen
     on your shoulders and nose so you won't redden

     and flake--though you're certain to freckle, 
the dark pinpricks flowering on your chest and arms, 
     proof you've been exposed, alive, burned.

     And eventually you'll discover what it's like
to be discovered: for another to find
     with wandering hands and lips your fallibilities,

     your limits. Every inch of you a kind of evidence:
here's where I fell, where it hurt, where I bled.


Penance V

To live in the body is to die in it--
we emerge, slapped into this afterworld,
and already we are whittled down,
flecked, hour by hour, away.
Though perhaps this is a fate I've invented
because of how neatly it would explain everything.
Yesterday I took two photos of you--in one,
you bend over to rifle through an old box,
light quickening with the sinewy tremors
in your calves. In the other, you are wearing
just blue jeans, clean shirt pinned between chin
and chest as you fold it, quiet. Your shadow
billows behind you. What I mean to say is
I am compelled to translate you into a space
I can return to. You do this, too--that thing
with your hands in the dark, not finding me
so much as making me. Which is why
Thomas had to touch the wounds, new
and softly scarred, proof that the body was life
and death. His unbelief suddenly lucid, articulate.
Good morning, you say, though I know it is only
because there are no names for what you feel most.
Forgive me for how I don't know you.

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