World Tree

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Overview

World Tree is in many respects, David Wojahn’s most ambitious collection to date; especially notable is a 25-poem sequence of ekphrastic poems, “Ochre,” which is accompanied by a haunting series of drawings and photographs of Neolithic Art and anonymous turn of the last century snapshots.

Wojahn continues to explore the themes and approaches which he is known for, among them the junctures between the personal and political, a giddy mixing of high and pop culture references, and ...

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Overview

World Tree is in many respects, David Wojahn’s most ambitious collection to date; especially notable is a 25-poem sequence of ekphrastic poems, “Ochre,” which is accompanied by a haunting series of drawings and photographs of Neolithic Art and anonymous turn of the last century snapshots.

Wojahn continues to explore the themes and approaches which he is known for, among them the junctures between the personal and political, a giddy mixing of high and pop culture references, and a deep emotional engagement with whatever material he is writing about.

Winner of the 2012 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Oscillating between epistles, nocturnes, homage, "web prayers," and ekphrastics, Wojahn demonstrates his formal mettle across a range of subjects as diverse as the poems they inhabit. Joe Strummer, Eadweard Muybridge, and Czeslaw Milosz (among others) all make appearances, as Wojahn charts a sweep of history that touches upon each "famished ghost" it can. In the "Apotheosis of Charlie Feathers," Wojahn writes of the father of rockabilly, "Reading neither music nor the alphabet, /he ascends. Cheated by fate, /Sun Records & Elvis Presley /...Charlie Feathers is tuning up." The book's third section, "Ochre"—composed of images of neolithic art and anonymous photographs, each of which is accompanied by a poem—exchanges a little of Wojahn's signature heat for poems that describe rather than render their images. Like a decathlete in his prime, what is staggering is the ease with which Wojahn can change rhythms and registers (elsewhere he creates an acrostic out of Scrabble tiles and employs the mixtape as a form). Yet for all his spinning plates, Wojahn's politics are never absent, as when he places the NRA president in Dante's seventh circle of hell, where "forever the seething blood would scorch & fill your lungs." (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“The poems are large, bold, idiosyncratic, beautiful and compelling, and should earn the author an audience as wide as a living American poet can have.”

—Green Mountains Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822961420
  • Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Publication date: 2/20/2011
  • Series: Pitt Poetry Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 995,190
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

David Wojahn is professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University and also teaches in the MFA in Writing Program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of Spirit Cabinet, The Falling Hour, Late Empire, Mystery Train, Glassworks, Icehouse Lights, and Interrogation Palace, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wojahn is the recipient of four Pushcart Prizes, the William Carlos Williams Book Award, the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize, the George Kent Memorial Prize, and the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize, among other honors. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Read an Excerpt

World Tree


By DAVID WOJAHN

University of Pittsburgh Press

Copyright © 2011 David Wojahn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8229-6142-0


Chapter One

    Scribal: My Mother in the Voting Booth

    Stabbing the hole by Nixon's name, with a stylus on a chain,
        like some scribe
    in Lagash piercing wet clay slabs for the palace records. The count
        for the priest king's
    chariots & Amorite slaves must be exact. All day her adding machine
        has purred, the shavings

    litter the floor. Stylus through Nixon, stylus through Agnew. Two hours
        she's waited in the wet
    November snow of Minnesota & her cold next week will worsen
        to pneumonia. Over
    the churning columns she'll cough & pass out & waken in County General,
        shrouded in an oxygen tent

    where she cannot smoke. The count must be exact—14 lyres with
        the heads of bearded bulls,
    130 votives, 6 figurines of Marduk fashioned of hammered gold.
        The water glass is trembling.
    Beside her bed I hover, the clear walls of the tent breathe in & out.
        Flicker of Cronkite,

    of Nixon on the wall in black & white. He has a secret plan
        to end the war.
    She sleeps. The tent draws a breath & the joint I smoked
        in the parking lot turns the light
    a jack-o'-lantern orange. I tell myself in my teenage hubris
        that I will not work on

    Maggie's Farm like her. Ain't gonna work like her
        to blindly serve.
    But how her white ectoplasmic face looms back at me this morning
        (breathe in, breathe out,
    the tent's rise & fall) in the waiting room of Richmond Pediatrics.
        All night Luke's coughed,

    meaning the pneumonia's returned & the office radio oozes hate,
        talk show & its porcine
    fascist droning on. He has a secret plan to replace the Constitution
        with gelignite.
    Over us all it washes, the fine volcanic dust, over the fevered
        toddlers of the suburbs

    & their mothers in sensible shoes, over the Parentings
        & Mademoiselles
    & the parking lot minivans, the toxic "W"s affixed to their bumpers.
        Breathe in & serve
    breathe in & serve. A slab of plastic for the co-pay,
        the computer station hums.

    Cylinder seal & tapestry, ninety geldings in the palace stables. Nebulizer
        spewing Pulmicort.
    Pink amoxicillin, doctored to taste like bubblegum. seven double-headed
        battleaxes, burnished bronze
    now oxidized the color of pond scum. Blindly, blindly do we serve.
        O Priest King, Dear Leader,

    Jealous God. There hangs her scarlet car coat with its Nixon button,
        bogus leopard skin along the collar.
    She unzips the tent, she recovers. Manhattans prohibited for fourteen days.
        The adding machine reanimates,
    numbers coughing & the tapes scrolling out. She lives on, twenty more
        deluded years. In the parking lot,

    Rx in hand, I strap sleeping Luke in his car seat—streetlights, the yellow
        & blood-red leaves, pasted
    to the window by the rain. Let me serve him. Let me live on
        twenty years. Let me stand
    above the burial pits, their goods interred & catalogued, the miles
        of dirt tamped down.


    August, 1953

    A nurse gathers up the afterbirth. My mother
             * * *
    had been howling but now could sleep.
             * * *
    By this time I am gone—also gathered up
             * * *
    & wheeled out. Above my jaundiced face the nurses hover.
             * * *
    Outside, a scab commands a city bus. The picketers battle cops
             * * *
    & ten thousand Soviet conscripts in goggles
             * * *
    kneel & cover their eyes. Mushroom cloud above the Gobi,
             * * *
    & slithering toward Stalin's brain, the blood clot
             * * *
    takes its time. Ethel Rosenberg has rocketed
             * * *
    to the afterlife, her hair shooting flame. The afterbirth
            * * *
    is sloshing in a pail, steadied by an orderly who curses
            * * *
    when the elevator doors stay shut: I am soul & body & medical waste
            * * *
    foaming to the sewers of St. Paul. I am not yet aware
            * * *
    of gratitude or shame.
           I do know the light is everywhere.


    Screensaver: Pharaoh

    We had eaten the placenta in a soup that someone based on a family recipe
        for menudo, though someone else—
    it was Bill, I think—joked that it tasted just like chicken. This Year's Model
        was brand new & the needle stuck
    on "Lipstick Vogue," Costello snarling not just another mouth, not just
        another mouth
, until Joe

    set down the bong & flicked the tone arm forward from the scratch.
        & anyway, by this time
    Amy was shouting from the bedroom that she'd finally gotten Star to sleep,
        that the music should be
    Mozart or something. I've forgotten the midwife's name, but she sat
        sprawled on a patio chair,

    the distant blink of Tucson down the mountainside. She held an iced Corona
        & told us she was too worn-out
    to drive the snaking foothill two-lanes home. Good dope, cheap champagne,
        a soup of afterbirth:
    everybody but the midwife garrulous & now Papageno was flapping
        birdman wings in his mating dance

    around fair Papagena. So the talk turned to duets—scholastic in the way
        that stoner conversations go.
    Whose placenta was it we slurped down with cilantro & a dash of cumin,
        telling ourselves the taste
    was not half bad—Amy's or Star's? & what about Derek, who now
        had moved to Mykonos,

    leaving his storied seed behind: what portion of the recipe was owed
        to him? Now came the tricky part—
    where did the soul inhere? The midwife rimmed her longneck with
        a lemon slice & allowed
    that we'd ingested perfection, the body's all-in-one: liver, kidney,
        blood supply,

    its vascular estuaries spidering from delta to sea, tasting not just of flesh,
        but of the corpus entire,
    which we all agreed was pretty far-out. Lord how I yearn sometimes
        for those days of sudden
    bedazzling insight, however false & addled. My eyes went Blakean.
        By the firelight I watched

    the quaking dance of souls, bi- & tri- & quadrifurcated & hovering among us
        in a pea-soup fog,
    lavish as dry ice a-swirl from a spliff. My soul, your soul, our soul.
        The Oversoul broadcasting
    its hundred thousand watts of Motown to the radio speakers of the whole
        Southwest; Aretha Soul & Otis Soul

    & Sam Cooke Soul. & Pneuma, weighing twenty grams of blazing light.
        But then the tone arm
    reached the aria's end. The LP clicked off. The room became
        sleeping bags & pillows,
    Mexican blanket covering a ratty sofa. The parts we didn't eat
        we double-bagged

    & carried to the dumpster, padlocked to confound the coyotes.
        The midwife took the couch
    & slept. & by the firelight the whole clan slumbered, the cave wall
        throwing shadows. This was
    thirty years ago. Where the business of the world has taken us
        I cannot say. I reboot,

    the pixels gather themselves & pulse at me. I could Google Amy,
        Google Star, MapQuest
    Speedway Boulevard & call up Derek's obit from the Sentinel.
        But the screen instead
    coalesces to a tomb painting of Pharaoh. Lordly he walks,
        preceded by his vassals,

    who bear his emblems & trophies, hoisted atop tall staffs.
        Among them
    is Pharaoh's placenta, preserved & flapping like an ensign.
        Raised to the sky,
    the crimson portal hovers in the wind. From it the God-King
        fell headfirst into this world.


    Ending with a Quotation from Walden

    For three generations
            their farmlands
           withered
    & the Anasazi
            took to eating human flesh,
            their enemies
    First, then at last
            their kinsmen.
            A pattern
    Of scored
        & incised human bones
            is evidence,
    If you know how
            to read the auguries
            of microscopes.
    Forensic:
            from the Latin forensis,
            the marketplace.
    The forum
            where debate was engaged,
            where tricks
    Of rhetoric & gesture
            might enhance
            your case.
    But so much
            is conjecture—
            whose sad flesh
    Was churned within
            this white-ware pot?
           Stranger
    Or kin?
            The Hated One?
            The Beloved One whose touch
    You'd stir to
            in the dawn,
            now portioned & shared
    In ghostly ritual?
            Or did you sunder bone
           between your teeth
    & gloating, ingest
            the marrow of
            your foe?
    The innermost:
           I wanted to live deep,
           writes Thoreau,
    & suck out
            all the marrow
            of this life.


    Nazim

    Perched with the chainsaw on the branch, he bends toward the trunk
        as the others cry loco & the sawdust
    fizzes toward his goggles, the engine seething & just when the branch begins
        to sway & creak he's got
    the motor off, earthbound again & chugging Gatorade, my twins
        at the window, spellbound.

    The hurricane's left downed trees for miles, power lines still tentacling the streets
        though it's been weeks since
    the eye passed over. Our crew's all Mexican save for him—Nazim from Istanbul,
        whose namesake, he tells me,
    is Hikmet the Poet. "They locked him in our prisons for years, Professor.
        They didn't like Reds."

    He hands the empty jug to me, stubbing a cigarette & grinning at the boys.
        Because his English is better
    than his Spanish, he talks with me while the others lunch. They have christened him,
        el turco, el turco loco,
    who steeplejacks the trunks in a manic dervish. They've been at it for days,
        the felled oaks neatly stacked

    in rows where the shed had been. The cherry pickers of Dominion Power
        hover the streets & the boys
    have learned to shout hola at spoons & neighborhood cats, at newel posts
        & themselves & Nazim's
    shown me pictures—the wife & daughters waiting in Istanbul, by the turbid briny
        Bosporus Hikmet smelled but couldn't view

    from the window by the ceiling of his cell. The boys prowl the living room,
        shirtless in the heat,
    a crescent moon of scar on Jake's right side, where they pried
        his dead kidney from him
    at six months; the jagged white skin glistens. Yesterday, Nazim pulled his T-shirt up
        for Carlos & Pepe to view
    the zigzag handiwork of his own operation, a kidney sold in Israel,
        $4,000 American,
    enough for passage to Miami where a brother, praise Allah, waited.
        He joked about
    the hospital food, kosher but not half-bad. Three years since he's seen his family
        & maybe three years more

    before he'll have the cash to send for them. "Not easy to wait that long,"
        he tells me, "but possible.
    Look at Hikmet." Thirteen years of prison, thirteen more of exile, dying in Moscow
        on a day of wet spring snow:
    How will they get me down from the third floor? he worried in a poem.
        The coffin won't fit the elevator,

    & the stairs are so narrow.
Again he pulls the photo from his wallet,
        giving thanks, even to the Brazilian
    who owns his kidney, which rides a limo through the boulevards of Rio
        & daily rubs against
    a money belt thick with bills & floats beside a bladder streaming piss
        into a marble urinal,

    its gold-plated fixtures agleam. Praise Allah, as if justice & injustice could be
        equally miraculous
    & both as blissfully blind. Praise Mammon, Tribute & Elohim,
        Praise Storm God
    & the sultry Muse of Dialectical Materialism, Her earnest luster faded.
        Nazim wipes his brow;

    the air reeks of gasoline & in a penthouse by the Sugarloaf
        a scowl with sunglasses
    checks a beeper, orders barked into his cell. In Istanbul a woman wakes alone
        at dawn to pack lunch
    for her daughters to carry to school & in the poem a girl in Oakland reads,
        Hikmet still rides the train

    from Prague to Berlin, March 28, 1962, lighting his sixth cigarette
        & listing the things
    he didn't know he loved, among them clouds & rain & engine sparks.
        The boys knock down
    a Lego castle as the lights blaze on for the first time in weeks,
        the microwave beeping,

    TV flaring up with a nattering soap. They're at the screen door
        shouting hola
    as the chainsaws set themselves upon the last downed oak, the crew
        intoning turco loco,
    while Nazim teeters on a limb he cuts half-through before
        he leaps back earthward.


    Christ at Emmaus

        Craquelure—the fine pattern of cracks formed on old paintings. It is
          sometimes used to detect forged art, as craquelure is a hard-to-forge
          signature of authenticity.


    Now they recognize that He's the Risen One, something in His gesture
        as he breaks the bread,
    & the light as it plays through the glass, backlit by the dying sun,
        His eyes closed for the blessing.
    He is clothed in ultramarine, color-of-far-across-the-sea.
        The serving plate & flagons

    shimmer in the honeyed light. The tablecloth flares a dazzling whiteness,
        though uncanny questions
    & sorrowful mysteries remain. Not that He soon shall vanish,
        not that their hearts
    should burn within them as He talks, but how stiffly they pose beside Him;
        the hand of Peter is a lifeless prop

    & the serving woman's eyes are saucers, a treacly half-smile on her face.
        Beyond the gilded frame,
    it is 1938. Chamberlain with his shut umbrella steps off the plane
        from Munich, waving his scrap
    of worthless treaty. Lindbergh poses with Goering in the cockpit
        of a Junkers 88, grinning

    for the camera, his newly bestowed medal agleam. A studio doctor
        taps on Judy Garland's arm
    to find a vein—Methedrine & B-12, so her dance with the Tin Man
        may continue. Frida Kahlo
    spits out Trotsky's come into a washbasin of hammered tin.
        Nanking smolders; Barcelona falls,

    but here at the Museum Boymans, a lost Vermeer's unveiled.
        The barbarous world
    of signs & wonders has been barred at the door, replaced by Holland:
        Four Centuries of Masterworks.

    Opening night, & the crowd seethes around the risen savior.
        From London, New York

    & Buenos Aires, the critics have thronged. They compete
        for superlatives;
    they jostle for a better view & a tall dapper man, pencil-mustached,
        waits his turn for his audience
    with God. He is Han van Meegeren, though he himself is God
        the Father, who begot His Risen Son

    from a badly rendered Raising of Lazarus, seventeenth century, purchased at auction
        for 1,400 guilders.
    Three hundred years the dead man staggered from his tomb, only to be scraped
        unceremoniously
    from his canvas, meticulously as flaying. Wormhole, foxmark,
        tabula rasa, the canvas now Malevich plain.

    After eight bogus Halses & three ter Borches, he is ready to begin,
        paint mixed with lavender
    & lilac oil, & a foul-smelling plastic from America—Bakelite.
        He saws the canvas down
    to make it fit his oven. In a chair by the oven door, he sips schnapps
        & waits for the cracks

    to spider the window, the tablecloth, the luminous bread that pearls
        with sunshine—craquelure.
    & this time the recipe's correct. Now the second act commences,
        papers falsified,
    the provenance rigged, the usual story of desperate Jews
        selling their birthrights

    for passage to New York, the experts stunned before
        "the greatest Vermeer of all."
    Van Meegeren shoulders through the crowd. He stands before
        his graven carnage,
    his hypocrite double, his twin in purple robes, who will watch
        the smokestacks
    cinder the skies, & all the cites of the plain flare up in the night
        with their chemical sheen,
    the beaches running red. He will watch & wait.
        Craquelure—
    broadcast like radio waves, over the quadrants & the steppes,
        the atolls & the shtetls

    & the blazing chancelleries. A dazzling whiteness. Van Meegeren
        pockets his pince-nez
    & turns for home. The twenty-seven photojournalists are now
        permitted their moment;
    they kneel, stand & crouch. Almost in unison, the cameras crackle,
        a writhing & enraptured light.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from World Tree by DAVID WOJAHN Copyright © 2011 by David Wojahn. Excerpted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Scribal: My Mother in the Voting Booth....................3
August, 1953....................5
Screensaver: Pharaoh....................6
Ending with a Quotation from Walden....................9
Nazim....................11
Christ at Emmaus....................14
For the Honorable Wayne LaPierre, President, National Rifle Association....................17
Self-Portrait Photo of Rimbaud with Folded Arms: Abyssinia, 1883....................19
Rolltop....................20
Napping on My Fifty-Third Birthday....................22
Quicken....................25
Fetish Value....................26
For Tomas Tranströmer....................29
Another Epistle to Frank O'Hara....................33
Self-Portrait as Sock Puppet....................36
Ode to Black 6....................37
Mixtape to Be Brought to Her in Rehab....................39
Jimmie Rodgers's Last Blue Yodel, 1933....................41
For Willy DeVille....................42
The Apotheosis of Charlie Feathers....................44
World Tree....................46
Ochre....................55
Mudlark Shuffle....................107
Freshwater Bay....................109
Letter to Eadweard Muybridge....................111
In the Domed Stadium....................113
Nocturne: Newark Airport....................115
A Decorated Ghost Dance Shirt....................118
Visiting Dugan....................119
Web Prayer for Milosz....................121
Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash....................122
Block Letters....................123
Sepulchre....................124
Talismanic....................128
Notes....................131
Acknowledgments....................134
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  • Posted May 31, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Global issues to home, all in ekphrastic poetic responses

    Private places and public spaces--Wojahn uses verse to explore nuances of a distinctly diverse choice of settings. Investigating the variances of humanity, all the forms of beauty and ugliness, he paints a picture sometimes brutal, and sometimes impossibly sweet. From the beginning of one poem to the end, you're never entirely sure of the destination. Many times I was intrigued at just how much emotion he evokes in a few choice phrases.



    Designed in four sections, World Tree is a play on the concept of 'family tree'. He extends the meaning to show the inner dependency we have on people throughout the world, whether we like it or not. He illustrates the poems with an assortment of unusual graphics-the choices that serve as inspiration for some of the poems. This is called ekphrastic poetry, using art or visual images to inspire the poem. In some cases the poems are a reactionary response to the visual medium, at other times an attempt to explain the meaning or setting of the piece. Or, as in some of the photographs Wojahn uses, the poem reveals hidden meaning behind the scenes. Cave paintings and excavated archaelogical finds also provide potent ideas that Wojahn explores.



    In one, "The Killed Man", he uses a cave painting that is thousands of years old. He ties the old to the new in his imagination, making the ancient appear far more relevant than if observed on a museum wall:



    "The stick man bristles with five sticks

    & his insides pour out, a mesh of ochre,


    Rendered childlike. The invention of torture

    Is so fresh they are confounded.

    How to depict

    The human figure mangled, the whole reduced

    To the gutted sum of its parts...



    They keep you chained & hooded on the flight

    From Kabul to Gitmo. They serve a meal



    Of rubber hoses, then another. The shackles

    Gnaw at your wrists & ankles."



    The basic image moves into the present, with the not-so-unfamiliar image of a tortured prisoner. Has time not changed man's brutality? Is there progress evident?



    In "Trepanned Skull of a Woman with a Prosthetic Seashell Ear", he uses the fascinating photo of the shell ear (amazingly true to life) to examine the mystery behind it:



    "The facts: someone made a drill of flint

    & bore into her cranium for hours,

    a procedure

    She survived, living on some twenty years.

    Someone fashioned a device with which she might detect



    The wave-crash of a sea three hundred miles away,

    Worked shell to a phosphorescent simulacrum

    Of auricle & cartilage, a lobe she'd worry

    Until her fingers rubbed it smooth as skin.



    Of untold mysteries we are composed....



    ...& was affliction cured?

    &did she prophesize-oracle, priestess, sphinx?



    Wounded goddess, did she unclasp her shell-ear as she lay down to dream?"



    In the fourth section, Wojahn's focus is more on the public spaces and modern history, with references to the King of Pop, the Haiti earthquakes, and the endless 'crawl' of bad news on CNN. His "Letter to Eadweard Muybridge" mingles details from the photographers 19th century life with present events, and shows that not much has changed. "In the Domed Stadium" employs the colors of gray, black, rust, and crimson along with words like sizzling, jeering, rippled, and twitching to create a nightmare scene

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