A Vertical Mile
by Richard Wakefield
88 pages/ The book contains 63 poems
Publisher: Able Muse Press
Reviewed by David D. Horowitz
Richard Wakefield's second poetry collection, A Vertical Mile illustrates the finest virtues in contemporary American formal verse: subtle rhyming; enjambement and conversational diction yielding remarkable fluency; perfect balance of vivid imagery and understated observation; and richly eclectic topics and themes. A Vertical Mile proves not only the continued relevance of rhyme and meter but of the benefits of quiet consideration in an age prone to loud polemics.
Wakefield hints at nostalgia for a more agrarian America and Pacific Northwest, yet he never preaches or simplistically dismisses. In "Signs and Wonders," his masterful poem about shooting stars, Wakefield notes
But now we know it's grit
ignited by descent,
no message borne in it,
no purpose, nothing meant.
And yet we long to think
that moment's random fire
significant, to link
our lives with something higher.
Here is not some facile denunciation of the modern and scientific‐but a powerfully understated acknowledgment of a need, an impulse that we cannot and likely should not ignore. Wakefield refers to "we." He shares in the modern and can appreciate its knowledge. It's just that he also knows to respect longing for the eternal.
Wakefield writes often of rural themes. Many of his poems are based on an anecdote reflecting human interaction with animals and wilderness. "Without a Word," for example, describes the narrator's meeting a coyote at dawn. The poet reveals insight at once great and subtle, respectful yet ironic:
A hundred yards away I saw him turn
his head to give a last, dismissive look,
then glide without a sound the way he came,
begrudging me the little time he took
to find that I was nothing he need name.
Here is a poet at once accessible yet not simplistic, clear but not too obvious. "Poetry is the clear expression of mixed emotions" commented W. H. Auden, and Wakefield works this as well as any poet alive. His equally impressive "Contemplation" describes a domestic cat:
The cat wakes up to see the spot of sun
that she's been basking in has eased away
across the kitchen floor, as it has done
a dozen times this silent winter day.
Wakefield eases the reader into this quiet scene and develops it through characteristic description of human/animal interaction. He closes with the utmost regard:
I'm chilled to think a prayer is but a plea
that God might deign to stop this whirling sphere,
to rearrange the universe for me
that I might have a moment's comfort here.
Then quietly, so not to wake the cat,
I rise and stretch, adjust the thermostat.
Wakefield inspires not only respect for the cat but for the entire cosmos which he, the cat, and all of us share.
A Vertical Mile, as noted above, is admirably eclectic. Here is a snippet from "The Heaven of the Senses," one of the collection's few but fine love poems:
Transcendent endless bliss? It won't be much
compared to pressing skin to skin;
we find an earthbound heaven in
reciprocal indulgences of touch.
Here the poet stays delightfully unpredictable, praising romantic sensuality despite earlier acknowledging our need for "something higher." Likewise, for all of Wakefield's excellent work about human interaction in nature with animals, his "Last of Spring" perfectly describes a last-day-of-spring basketball game in a city alley:
The year-around, though, warehouse workers use
their hour at lunch to shoot some hoops
among the gutters' green and greasy ooze,
the dented garbage cans, the grimy stoops.
Wakefield nevertheless links this game to natural cycle and coincidental affinity for solstice ritual:
The shadows rise first waist‐ then shoulder-high;
the players' time grows short, they pass and run‐
they spring beneath their narrow strip of sky
to catch the ball, as if to catch the sun.
Note the rich connotations of "rise" and "spring." Such depth, such texture, such understated mastery‐as fluent as the players he describes.
Richard Wakefield's A Vertical Mile matches all the promise of his excellent first collection, East of Early Winters (University of Evansville Press, 2006; Richard Wilbur Award). Bravo to Able Muse Press for publishing A Vertical Mile, and "Hey, what are you waiting for?!" to Northwest poetry lovers looking for a reason to shop at their local or online book retailer. And, above all, thank you to Richard Wakefield for his abiding loyalty to the finest principles and practice of poetic craft.