In Wilder, Claire Wahmanholm invents a language of disintegrating futures, using poems to take us through unraveling fairytales and the volatile terrain of our unraveling planet. Written in 2018, the book feels like a premonition of what is to come. The collection’s striking red moon cover drew me in with its strangeness. There’s something ominous about the urgently red planet that only looms larger as the image repeats within the text between poems. I keep returning to this symbol because I think it encapsulates a lot of what the poems and the collection are doing—exploring disasters of the familiar. These days, I split my time between small amusements, melancholy nostalgia, keeping vigil for daily disasters, and trying to find moments of rest with community in between. This collection charts that and more.
Untitled chorus-like poems function as interludes throughout the book, contributing to the collection’s end-song quality. Spoken by a “we,” these pages both create moments of community and also a sense of lost-ness: “The ocean calls. / we / cross/ six trillion miles of / everlasting night / we / are precious.” The stretches of white space between each line give me this drifting feeling—like this “we” is being pulled along. Here, they are listening to the ocean call towards an endless journey, and yet the page ends with “we / are precious.” Despite the surrounding struggle and destruction, the speakers in this poem find meaning in their cataloging of these moments.he speaker continues, “an / alien / general / collected / us” and “we / were / disintegrated, / pathetic scattered fragments.” Yet the section ends with the speakers saying their “wonder” was preserved even in their “disintegration.” Between the intensity of the titled poems, these clear, sparse words invite the reader to nestle themselves among the voices.
On Wilder’s earth, nature is violent and this contributes to the theme of the distorted familiar. In the poem, “The Meadow, The Lake,” the image is rapidly moving towards an uninhabitable space as “The meadow is a lake. / The lake is 400 degrees.” Yet, there’s life here. “A pair of swallows pivots out of the steam” and the speaker says “we name” about their own shadows. It’s volatile yet somehow whimsical. This morbid whimsy also comes out in poems like “Red Rover” and “Simon Says,” where children’s games are played in this destructive landscape. It suggests something about the human condition at times of horror and tragedy: we coil in our childhood comforts. We make games to play in the steam of the 400-degree lake. Then in a poem like “The Witch,” the speaker follows the thoughts of the Hansel and Gretel adjacent “children” as they watch “the witch” from their “bones cages” as they refuse to believe “that they are in any danger.” This poem explores the doubt and impulse to deflect the gravity of danger as the end times approach. In these poems particularly, for their fractured childhood and fairytale imagery and end-times dreaming, Wilder feels like it’s in conversation with books like feeld by Jos Charles and Age of Glass by Anna Maria Hong.
Lately, I’ve stopped saying “when the pandemic ends” and I’ve started saying “if the pandemic ends.” When I say this “pandemic” doesn’t just refer to the obvious virus that dismantled our ideas of “normal life.” “Pandemic” has become my place-holder for a series of destructive realities too long to list out, but namely capitalism and white supremacy. What I’ve found in Wilder is a clear articulation of what it’s felt like to keep trying to continue while destruction feels like just a feature of the landscape. In the poem, “B,” the speaker says, “B is for bearing witness” which is often all I feel I can do.
Starting with “A,” there are a series of alphabet poems in the book. It’s as if the speakers are trying to make order out of nothing. They are prose blocks that explore the sonic qualities of the letter through alliteration and how the meaning easily starts to slip from children’s book to death. For example, in “B” the speaker begins “B is for Brown Bear, for berries and beehives” and ends “for how bulletins are bursting with the bodies of brown bears and the alphabet is just beginning.” The alphabetical order and the familiar “B is for” suggest this attempt to pin language down but the slippage into “bulletins” and “bursting” concede the alphabet practices futile necessity.
I think that Wilder ultimately does offer community and language as a purpose or a propellor to living in the end times. These poems are saying, “here is what we have left.” What I appreciate most about these speakers is their impulse to move closer to one another. It’s a reminder to me to do the same (though not proximity-wise since of course we are battling a contagious virus). In the final pages, there are several prose-block poems titled “relaxation tape.” They harkened me back to my early pandemic days where I tried to do yoga and meditation every day and watched as they became less and less effective at calming me. I found these poems the most painfully sorrowful—the speakers’ maladies get worse and worse—starting with sleeplessness and ending in the last “Relaxation Tape” where the speaker says some of them “didn’t even have lungs” left. The tapes are marked by the people gathered to listen to them over one loudspeaker and picturing the before times pleasures like ocean breezes.
I’m not sure if Wilder is trying to comment on whether or not the “Relaxation Tapes” are positive, but I can’t help but wonder what mine are and what it means to live in our connected “wilder” world. The final poem “Lode Stars” concludes, “once upon a time the sun wiped its bloody hands across us as we slept.” I keep wondering if it means the speakers have died. Would this change what the book means if they do? I don’t have answers, but I do think the reality of everyday increasing death tolls has taught me little to nothing about death. If anything, it’s made it stranger. Completing this collection, I am reflecting on what it means to maintain a “we” with the dead. Who is the chorus? Who is going to hold us in between? This book gave me a space to consider these questions in an impossibly prophetic way.
ROBIN GOW is a trans poet and young adult author from rural Pennsylvania. They are the author of Our Lady of Perpetual Degeneracy (Tolsun Books 2020) and the chapbook Honeysuckle (Finishing Line Press 2019). Their first young adult novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions is forthcoming in 2022 with FSG Books for Young Readers. Gow’s poetry has recently been published in POETRY, New Delta Review, and Washington Square Review.