Wade Stevenson’s newest collection of poems, In the Country of the Peregrine (BlazeVOX, 2023) features the standard lyrical meditative poetic style that readers of his work should already be familiar with. As was true in the last few books, this book takes up love as the main theme. In fact, if there was a mantra for how Stevenson experiences love, it exists in this book, in the poem titled “Poem for Four Words”: “Love first / Die later.” However, the speaker’s positioning is slightly different in this book; reflection and alienation are two themes that appear more prominently in this collection. At the beginning of the book, it is pointed out that a peregrine is not only a falcon; in Latin, peregrinus means foreigner, traveler, pilgrim—someone who is not a native to the area they are exploring or inhabiting. The speaker in these poems seems to be experiencing the life of a peregrine in a metaphorical sense; in many ways, he is a stranger to himself and the life he has made for himself. Alienation of the self within the self is what it means to be a peregrine in this book. However, the speaker is also very aware of how his life has played out. Reflection of his past self, past loves, past hurts, past traumas, and the accumulation of wisdom all contribute to the retrospective nature of the poems.
In the poem, “In Memoriam of Our Wild Days” the speaker operates from a more collective standpoint, which is a nice contrast to the lyrical “I” that takes up the majority of the book. This poem could be seen as the speaker reflecting on a past relationship with a beloved, but it can also be read as a poem about a group (human or animal or living nature) that celebrates the experience of being wild. Here is the opening of the poem:
Once we were more than wild
This is how wildly we lived our only life—
It wilded us. It was wild before us
Then when we lived it
It became wild again
This is an interesting start to a poem for a few reasons. The first being the second line: “This is how wildly we lived our only life.” This is what gives the poem a collective feel—“our only life.” It also suggests that the collective only had one shot at living. However, the experience of living wildly was brought to them: “It wilded us.” As the speaker continues, “It was wild before us / Then when we lived it / It became wild again.” The it—life—was already present, and experienced wildness again through this collective. In this sense, life could also refer to the living environment around the collective, the ecosystem that longed to be wild again. Further down the poem, the speaker asserts
We got back to our essential God-
Seeded nature, wild and wilder
In both body and mind
Wilding to such a degree
You might have thought our wildness
Would have crashed and crushed us
This part of the poem refers to God as being wild in nature, and the collective experiencing wildness was like inhabiting the true essence of God—which is wildness. However, the poem takes an interesting turn. The speaker says “You might have thought our wildness / Would have crashed and crushed us.” He continues
We grew beyond the wild animals
That we were, throwing
Caution to the wind, with the light
Of our bodies we broke out
Of the darkness that sometimes dwelled
In our souls, we were wild, we were young
No matter how—we wildered and won
This is where the poem lands, on a profound realization that subverts the general narrative of the concept of wildness: that it’s fleeting and it usually ends in disaster. In the typical societal narrative, young people go through a “wild phase”—it’s not regarded as a permanent condition. And as the narrative goes, young people who go wild experience consequences that cause them to “mature” or “change their ways.” The idea of being wild is fun at first, but usually interpreted as a cautionary tale: If you act wild, disaster is inevitable. But in this poem, the collective becomes stronger through the experience of wildness: “…we broke out / In our souls, we were wild, we were young / No matter how—we wildered and won.” The last phrase, “we wildered and won” is incredibly powerful because it suggests that inhabiting wildness was essential to the collective’s empowerment. Wildness—in this poem—is a path to enlightenment, not destruction. It subverts the societal perception of wildness as being temporary and dangerous and turns it into a collective spiritual experience that leads to transcendence.
There are two poems that stood out in particular in the collection; they exist side by side and are worth discussing together. The poems are “A Farewell to Words” and “In the Garden of the Overnight Words.” In the first poem, the speaker is brutally honest about his vocation as a writer and how it is ultimately a meaningless pursuit due to the fact that he wants his writing to bring him immortality. Halfway through the poem, he comes to a brutal truth: “If you added all the pages together / In time it would create a biblical book of absence.” For readers who are familiar with Stevenson’s work, spirituality is a major theme that inherently runs through his collections. His poems are almost always meditative and evoke spirituality through image and metaphor. Here, this is exactly what’s happening. The speaker recognizes how he has been creating a spiritual canon of nothingness. His honesty, although harsh, is what makes the poem work on a deeply emotional level. He continues: “But life does not go on searching for a synonym / Or at least a rhyme. It comes to a sudden stop / Period. The End. Let it be done.” Once the speaker’s life ends, the poetry ends—because it’s only a reflection of the living aspect of the person. “No more poems, songs, or lyrical lullabies / You just have to read what I wrote with the pain / Of my bare hands.” The poem ends with the speaker asking the reader to do one last task for him, to take the pages and “…tear them apart / Let all the ripped paper pieces of my life rise / Into the air, fluttering free.”
In the poem “In the Garden of the Overnight Words” which comes right after this poem, the speaker takes a different approach to his writing. He is incredibly attentive and nurturing. Here is the beginning:
The first thing I do each morning when I rise
Is check my poems: did they survive the night?
Together/separately did they grow all right?
Did one letter learn to love the other?
Was a mere comma enough to pause them apart?
Do they need the spring rain of new-born words
To fertilize the secret souls sleeping
Under the ground of consonants and vowels?
Here, the speaker asks a series of metaphorical questions about his writing that bring the concept of creativity to a more nature-oriented place. The questions feel like a checklist; the speaker knows exactly what to look for in his literary garden and what it needs to flourish: “Did one letter learn to love the other?” “Do they need the spring rain of new-born words / To fertilize the secret souls sleeping…?” And then, the poem becomes reflective:
I’ll be the gardener of my past
Tirelessly sowing seeds of sundered
Loves, composted memories
In the mulched earth of my own vocabulary
The speaker becomes both the gardener and the garden. He is the garden he cultivates. This poem is drastically different from “A Farewell to Words” because it places the speaker as the organic source of his creativity. And because it’s nature-based (a garden), it’s more enduring. He becomes the seeds and the soil and the fertilization. He becomes part of the earth. In the previous poem, the speaker was honest about his failed attempt to achieve immortality through words, but in this poem, he seems to have realized a bigger truth: he is the work and he is also part of the earth. This creates a wonderful contrast within the collection that helps complicate the lyrical “I”—the poet as both human and eternal organic being. The poem ends with a wonderful romantic twist: “If death is the last flower of love / Love is the bloom that crowns the last goodbye.” Love is the ultimate expression of nature, which brings readers back to what Stevenson is really about in his poetry—to communicate the experience love.
In the Country of the Peregrine is a collection that will give readers exactly what they know about Stevenson’s poetry: meditative lyrical poems that maintain their first-person perspective and engage with love and spirituality. The slight difference is the speaker’s feelings of alienation and his desire to reflect on who he was, who he has become. Romantic love is also present in a good portion of the work: “Together we will write the book of man and woman / Ripping up the pages as soon as we are done.” In future collections, it would be interesting to see Stevenson explore poetic subjects outside of his comfort zone. Because he is such a wonderful meditative lyrical poet, he would do very well if he challenged himself poetically: maybe a shift in form, maybe a shift in subject matter. At times, his voice feels a bit too insulated in this collection; it needs to break open more, to explore territory unfamiliar to the lyrical “I” that is always central to his poetry. It would be interesting to see what kind of poetry Stevenson could create if he took more risks, ventured outside of himself a bit more, brought more of the outside world into his poetic system.
April 17, 2023