Poems by Maryfrances Wagner
Lawrence, KS: Mammoth Publications, 2015
Reviewed by Charlotte Mandel
Charlotte Mandel‘s ninth book of poetry, Through a Garden Gate with color photographs by Vincent Covello, is newly available from David Robert Books. Previous books include two poem-novellas of feminist biblical revision—The Life of Mary and The Marriages of Jacob. Her awards include the 2012 New Jersey Poets Prize and two fellowships in poetry from New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Learn more on her website.
Dioramas, Maryfrances Wagner’s rewarding new collection of poems, is aptly titled. Excerpted here, this is poetry which proves that clear-eyed focus on life experiences of a single person can cast light on societal history. A museum may exhibit a series of dioramas—displays set up to reconstruct an ancient or native culture with figures going about their daily activities. In these poems, mostly one page in length, the details shown open into wide realizations. Personalities are depicted through their belongings, speech and actions. Wagner offers no polemics—her lyrics use felicitous imagery, precise in sensory detail, to create narratives that ring true in the reader’s consciousness.
The book is divided into three sections. The first explores her Italian-American family heritage. In the opening poem, “Ragazza” we know the life of a “good Italian woman” who will keep a “dust-free home” prepare perfect braciole, cannoli and “biscotti for weddings,” forgive her husband for “unfamiliar stains” as he will forgive her “bulging thighs.”
Italian men always know ragazze who work the fields in a Bivona market. For airfare one will come. In time she will learn English. In time, they may learn to love.
The language often deepens by original and apt images. In “Sunday Service” the minister is “an iceberg we sail around each week” while “we hope to find a place to dock. . . In the plate . . .dimes / shine like minnows.” In “Going Back on Word” we know how “Truth snaps tight / as ringed binders, sudden as tiny bones // underfoot, snake fangs on a heel.”
The book’s second section offers poems of Wagner’s experiences teaching in schools. Her compassionate focus as poet and teacher is revealed by her skillful presentations of objective occurrence. In the poem “Mending Leroy’s Sweater In Composition” a troubled boy in her high school class who has gotten into fights lifts his hoodie to show her the rip.
The register hisses. It is snowing. . . He rests a hand on my arm. I kneel beside him and sew.
Wagner also can provide humor, as in a found poem using students’ questions on Edgar Allan Poe. Examples: “I thought only parrots could say ‘Nevermore’“ and “So this guy went to all of that trouble to kill a cat?” A riff on the number nine produces a “language” type poem of surprises.
This section includes a fine unsentimental love poem, “Across the Precipice”:
You lift me from the hunger of grief's wildfire eating its own forests . . . Each evening we slip off our backpacks, take the running leap across precipice into air, into willing arms that won't miss.
The book’s third section changes tone into gardens, nature, fossil hunting. There is vivid depiction of a tornado: “Within minutes, a mile of town confettied except for cars in stacks.” Animals enter into the human elements in “We Are the Fox”:
Darkness settles like a face relaxing, a film that keeps light from blinding us.
These poems gift us with vibrant vignettes. The title poem, on the diorama project she’s assigned to a class, produces “thirty shoebox moments suspended. . . Lives held still in our hands.” Maryfrances Wagner’s Dioramas creates three-dimensional living events that stay in the reader’s memory.