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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"A Map of the Night": Master poet sometimes loses his way in new collection

David Wagoner's new collection of poems, "A Map of the Night," feels like a summing-up by the author many consider the dean of Northwest poetry.

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Map of the Night"

by David Wagoner

University of Illinois Press, 143 pp., $19.95

If anyone qualifies as the senior statesman of Northwest poetry, it's David Wagoner. The University of Washington professor emeritus and editor of the former journal Poetry Northwest has served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and authored 10 novels in addition to his 18 collections of poems. In a sense, Wagoner has taken up the mantle of the late Seattle poet Theodore Roethke, his early teacher and mentor.

Wagoner moved here in 1954 and became a leading voice in regional poetry with his 1963 collection, "The Nesting Ground," where he homed in on iconic Washington scenes, such as this one from "On the Dosewallips Bridge":

Broad daylight stretches from an oyster bed

Across a salt marsh to a whitened coast

Where geese, blown back as fast as they can fly,

Hover a moment, yaw, then slope away.

With rivets creaking, girders overhead

Take on the live weight of the wind and sigh.

I lean against the railing and hang on.

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In work from that early period, the poet places himself as a tiny figure in a transcendent scene, imparting an awesome scale like that in Chinese landscape painting.

In Wagoner's latest collection, "A Map of the Night," the poems sometimes inhabit a more mundane place, of grumpy neighbors, noisy parties, sterile social events. Many have a nostalgic tone, as Wagoner looks back on his past, alludes to other poets (including Roethke, Rainer Maria Rilke and John Berryman) and, in quick vignettes, contemplates the end of life. The book feels like a summing-up.

Its finest moments resonate with the title, venturing into darkness and helping us recognize its familiar places. Yet not all the work reaches the high plane of Wagoner's reputation. Some poems mark moments in time whose liveliness dissolves in the telling, whose people are cutouts. Take the inevitable comparison between Wagoner's "My Father's Dance," and Roethke's divine "My Papa's Waltz," which begins:

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

Against those bright, rollicking three-beat lines, Wagoner's explanatory free verse seems flat-footed:

He thought of his body sometimes, when he had to,

as something to go to work with, then bring back,

wash off, cover up, and forget about as soon

as possible till it went on the next shift.

It's arguable, of course, that Wagoner means to convey the prosaicness of this father as opposed to the wild jubilance of Roethke's.

But the poem feels lifeless. Wagoner chips away at a block of stone, without ever revealing the man's physical presence or a glimpse of his inner self.

Yet the best of Wagoner's work still delivers the electric shock of truth. One of my favorite poems, "A Lesson From a Student," begins, "My student says he writes short stories and poems/ in front of a mirror, sitting at a table/ in the nude." Although the teacher in the poem doesn't like the student's writing and tells him the method is "the worst idea I've heard in a long while," he decides to try it for himself. The images that follow are harrowing:

And there I am in the mirror

in the bleak interrogation room again

in the small hours, having been shaken awake,

frog-marched, and stripped. There, on the other side

of the glass, behind that translucent image

of what's to become of me, the official,

who already knows the answers to all the questions

I've kept to myself, is staring through me now

as if I'm neither here nor there. The papers lying

in front of me are filled with my scrawled confession,

which, instead of stopping cold, goes on and on.

Wagoner's wisdom glows in this portrait, an acknowledgment of the breach between the scornful teacher and the stripped prisoner he's protecting. It's conveyed in both the nuanced tone of the poem and its deft form. Aren't Wagoner's line breaks masterful? "The papers lying... " carries a special jolt. Here the promise of "A Map of the Night" is fulfilled.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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