Anne Pierson Wiese’s “The Writer,” featured 2/22/11 at VerseDaily, originally appeared in the Southern Review.
What I like about “The Writer” is its play on the writer’s mystique. Who is this quirky, suffering transient? What he’s up to, loitering “on certain corners for hours / at a stretch,” freaking everybody out with his perplexing behavior of persistent notebook scribbling?
“The Writer” is 30 lines of loose blank verse that hovers around the hexameter mark, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. As a result, it is a rhythmic poem that never adheres too strictly to the forces of meter and only in places establishes a truly dominant foot. The opening line, for example, is dactylic:
People in the neighborhood called him the writer
The second line is more or less iambic:
because he loitered on certain corners for hours
The next two lines vary the foot and meter quite a bit:
at a stretch, making notations in pocket-sized
spiral notebooks. At all times of year he wore
Wiese keeps this pattern of quasi-meter and loose rhythm consistent throughout, tightening the poem’s music, then relaxing it, tightening and relaxing. There are a few moments of nice sound play, too, particularly in the fifth line when Wiese writes how the writer wore a “dark / dirty overcoat. At no time did he interact / with passerby.” That’s nice consonance there with “overcoat” and “interact,” nice rhythmic echo with “overcoat,” “interact,” and “passerby.” Wiese uses strong consonance throughout. The obvious sound moment, however, comes in the middle of the piece when she writes, “some morse of misery or misery / of remorse.” That’s excellent and sticks out as an important moment in the poem due to its volume, so to speak, in what is otherwise a relatively quiet piece that doesn’t rely heavily on sound devices to pack its punch. As well, its placement in the poem’s middle emphasizes its importance—whatever that may be—to the piece as a whole, thematic or otherwise. In fact, it’s at this moment that Wiese’s narrative switches gears. To this point, she’s described the writer in somewhat general terms and in general times. After her “morse of misery,” she specifies that she’s speaking about this guy and what he did in one particular year. She writes, “One year, similar rows of dots and dashes began to appear. . .on the front steps of people’s houses.” The camera, which had been zooms out, now zooms in.
And with that, I return to content. Wiese’s writer fits the writer mystique: he’s mysterious, grieving and/or suffering, obsessed, oblivious, exotic, a bit crazy, solitary, dangerous. According to the poem, he wears a dingy overcoat and spends hours—years—“making notations in pocket-sized / spiral notebooks.” He doesn’t interact with others. And, of course, rumors abound about who he really is, where he’s really from, what is backstory is, what he’s really writing in his notebooks, whose names fill his pages and for what reasons. “Revenge,” the speaker suggests, “a recognizable language.” But, our knowledge of the writer is no greater at the poem’s end than it is at the poem’s beginning. Most of what we in the neighborhood know of the writer is speculative hearsay. All anyone knows for certain is what has been observed, that the writer hangs out on a few choice corners and scribbles something, who knows what, in his notebooks. At some point, as Wiese writes in past tense, we can infer the writer disappears. Rumors are put to rest, and the writer becomes part of neighborhood lore still worth thinking and talking about despite his absence. In a way, he seems to have a Boo Radley effect on the neighborhood. He's an unknown, and it's this that sparks our interest.
Ironically, “The Writer” is as much about us in the neighborhood as it is the mystery man. The poem’s first line is “People,” and it’s “People in the neighborhood” who “called him The Writer.” Later in the poem Wiese tells us that “Anxious / homeowner conversations ensued.” But honestly the bulk of this poem is made of those conversations—that speculative hearsay I mentioned earlier—and not of many verifiable statements or truths about this mysterious figure with which we’re all concerned. Strange how knowing so little can cause so much energy and distress among a host of others.
The last line of “The Writer,” “as if he were the last man on earth—or the first,” is worth addressing—it’s a good last line—but I’m not committed enough to this poem to make the effort, especially since my goal here on this blog is to be quick. What I will do, however, is revisit Wiese’s Floating City, which debuted a few years ago. I see I’ve only dog-eared one page out of 60 plus pages, and I recall the poems didn’t catch my interest, but I like “The Writer” well enough to give the collection another chance. For better or worse, “The Writer” is a complete, satisfying, well-crafted poem. Not something I’ll remember particularly, but something teachable from an anthology.