In God of Nothingness, Mark Wunderlich’s poems conjure reluctant ghosts and waltz with rusted memories. Embracing regret, grief, and death, this collection makes mourning and melancholy tangible, intimate moments through earthy lyric. By sharing his vibrant hauntings, the speaker delivers brief afterlives to loved ones, landscapes, and saints, all the while asking, “Who witnesses our deaths? Who witnesses our lives?” At the heart of this collection is the question of where and how we can find divinity despite the emptying force of death. The speaker invokes the “God of Nothing” and invites us to worship the void.
In the first poem of the collection, “Wunderlich,” the writer invokes his own surname and uses the third person as an act of self-observation. When I say he does this in a God-like way I mean nothing like the Christian “God” who is often regretful and sometimes whimsical; the “God” of this collection is quiet and reflective. As one long left-aligned stanza, the poem reads as a list which further contributes to this curious tone, as if the speaker is taking the writer as a specimen. In the list are story tangents that range from a connection to “The Pied Piper” to brief personal details like, “It means he sometimes wears peculiar garments to a party” and “It means pancakes once again for supper this week.” Repetition in “Wunderlich,” feels like a spell that might open a portal and invite the reader into the speaker’s world of ghosts and uncertainties.
Wunderlich uses form to develop these poems’ emotional cadences and often to echo their haunting otherworldly qualities. For example, in the first sections of the book, there are a lot of poems, like “Haunted House” and “Wooden Box,” consisting of couplets that then end in a single-line stanza. This creates an off-kilter feeling and suggests slightly askew endings. To me, it feels like leaving a door to a spirit world slightly ajar. In “Haunted House” the final line describes the ghost of “Old Dutch Mary” “waiting at the window once again.” The ghost’s waiting coupled with the singular line leaves the reader dangling too. This kind of haunting is linked to uncertainty and fear of untetheredness. Similarly, there is a variety of poems executed in only single-line stanzas. Unlike the off-kilter couplet poems, these poems feel cautious—each line weighty and measured like walking carefully across an image. In “The Indifference of Horses,” the speaker explores two childhood horses he used to ride, and these even lines simulation the sensation of riding—a sturdy and measured horse’s pace. The speaker reflects “My horses conveyed a solitude I came to admire.” In this patterned horse riding, the speaker inspects his own aloofness and considers the void while considering the animal’s “secret moods.” Through these forms, Wunderlich is able to capture different emotional facets of loneliness and uniquely articulate queer memory and aging. I also thought Wunderlich’s keen awareness of form to explore emotions like grief and death put this book in conversation with Victoria Chang’s Obit and Mark Bibbin’s 13th Balloon.
Almost paradoxically, the presence of death in this collection feels vital—like the moment of death reanimates something crucial about the creature or person departing. Wunderlich often chooses tactile moments to further convey this notion like in “Death of a Cat” where he writes, “as her warmth left, her lungs and throat/ rattled a little which was the sound / of the earth taking back the quickness / it had lent her.” He takes the body’s response and transforms it into a lyrical celebration of her presence on earth. In this way, these deaths slip quickly into brilliant haunting. Wunderlich moves with this theme in precise but diverse directions from funerals to the voices of saints. In one poem, “Ice Man,” Wunderlich delves into the story of an ancient human body that archeologists found frozen in the ice. Mediating on the remainder of his life, the poem reads, “No animals came / to feed on his flesh, no people came / to bury him.” Through this, we feel loneliness for the body despite its life’s absence. The parallel structure reinforces his isolation and calls upon the ice man’s spirit, imagining his desires even after death. The use of cultural figures like him, Mary Magdalen, and Jeffery Dahmer also works to dislodge the narrative from the present, therefore, moving these themes through time.
This collection’s considerations of the divine also feel specifically rooted in queer memory and desire. Admittedly, I first read the “God of Nothing” as a somewhat nihilistic commentary that “God is nothing,” but the book’s exploration of the divine forces the reader to pay attention to the title’s preciseness. These poems offer moments where the speaker encounters the divine rather than a definition of what the divine might be. God is neither good nor bad, but is more so an agent of recollection. In “First, Chill” the speaker prays “to the God of Nothing” for the will to let his mountain-wandering ghosts go. He describes the “God of Nothing” as the one “who hides the world of living / underneath his coat of snow.” This seems to suggest that the divine is a force of both covering and uncovering—possibly the actual process of uncovering as the speaker locates these ghosts and, in the end, lets them “go.”
The poem “God of Nothingness” conveys this God’s wrath and “selfish[ness]” in a scene about the speaker’s father who falls in a frozen lake and manages to escape though the event reveals his failing “equilibrium.” Though not antithetical to the previous mention, this poem illustrates a much more erratic god, ending by describing “this god has the head of a dog.” This “head of the dog” seems to parallel the father’s dog who also fell in the water and swam to shore, eventually giving up on finding “his master.” This god is incautious while simultaneously signaling what’s impending: the father’s unraveling. Though not necessarily cruel, this god feels “cold” as the narrator puts it. We feel the collection’s empty god can be unforgiving and harsh as well as beautiful.
I’m identifying these poems’ kind of recollection as “queer” because of the ways the speaker enters memories with present knowledge (the father’s deterioration, his mother’s thoughts, and his father’s survival), thus distorting the linearity of how we read the scene of his father’s fall. I mean “queer” both as in “unfixed” and “undefinable” though sometimes “queer” refers to the speaker’s sexuality. This particular speaker in “God of Nothingness,” doesn’t assert being “queer,” but I think from other poems we can deduce that perspective might exist in other poems as well. Likewise, the supernatural element of the speaker’s memories contributes to the “queering” of these memories. Overall, I think the ways these personal and shared stories are woven work well to develop and complicate the speaker’s relationship to death and divinity and identity.
The last element I wish to touch on is the book’s masterful progression. Separated into five parts, I felt like each section worked to deepen what the previous sections established. This gives the reader a feeling of wading into the book, but I felt like the poem “Five Cold Stories” specifically cracked the collection open and helped me understand the collection’s relationship to winter. There’s a common aging symbolism in winter, but in this poem, Wunderlich uses “cold” landscapes to draw attention to the body’s warmth and queer sex and love in contrast to that. There’s something about persistence and the not-death of winter that felt not hopeful but, alive. Wunderlich writes, “so interesting to feel the bones move inside the man,” dipping slightly into surrealism with his hand inside someone else deep enough to feel detailed inner workings. It’s about highlighting queer intimate bodies against the sharpness of the cold.
Ultimately, that “alive-ness” is what the reader is left with and what the speaker clings onto despite the cold and the loud nothingness around him. In the second to last poem, “Midsummer” the speaker reflects, “Alone in my thoughts I am alive on this hill,” repeating “alive” several more times in the poem. He clings to this, and by repeating it, “alive” starts to become a kind of prayer. “Alive” is the agent that gives the “nothing” of “death” meaning and animates these memories and ghosts. In the end, the collection becomes one about welcoming ghosts, permitting grief and loneliness, and venerating queer life and loves.
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.