With the Wednesday publication of this review, you may also think of this as a #WCW entry if you like — it might as well be! Connie Wanek is a true American gem, raised in both the Southwest and Midwest states. On Speaking Terms was her third of five books of poetry she’s written, published in 2010.
Full disclosure: This review was first written in October 2012, as a midterm assignment for my poetry class with Joyce Sutphen at Gustavus Adolphus College. I’ve revised it a little since then — I tried to rid it of any academic pretentiousness it may have retained from my almost-literally sophomoric years — but I still agree with all the major sentiments behind what I wrote initially. So I’d say it’s still worth sharing, and since I mentioned it in one of my Instagram stories this month, I figured now was as good a time as any.
On Speaking Terms:
Well-spoken Words of and for the World
What Connie Wanek does best in On Speaking Terms is relate to her audience. While at times I would rather read or listen to an abstract poem and just let the mystery of its words wash over me, I think the world is more often and more critically in need of the concrete imagery and insight provided in Wanek’s poems through the analysis of everyday life. More often than not, the poems in this collection end with a noun or an action that conveys one perception of human reality that, while drawn from the ordinary, is rendered rather greater than that. For example, in her poem “Rags,” Wanek begins by describing a presumably regular routine of cleaning house with a rag, only to show her audience how very meaningful — albeit odd — our attachments can be, as they affect our individual identities: “… I’d miss / being the person who wore it.” (16-17). “Hoarfrost” and “Confessional Poem” likewise begin with routine tasks that any person might engage in — clearing the yard or garden of plant clippings and visiting a Catholic confessional, respectively — then take surprising turns that conclude with powerful images or insights. In this way, the collection is effectively a set of musings which could arise at any moment, which inspires the idea that there could be something poetic in everyone — it needs only be written down for the chance to come alive and thrive.
But one should not be misled in thinking Wanek is overly simplistic or prudish in her writing. She releases her raunchy side with “Green Tent” and “Pickles,” and tickles the sphere of social and political criticism with poems such as “Monkey See,” “Musical Chairs,” “The Death of My Father,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” In most of her poems, Wanek can be seen as a wry observer of some event, or else a dry-witted commentator on issues that everyone thinks about, but not many talk about. For example, in “Musical Chairs,” she first connects the chairs to the lifeboats of “lifeboat ethics,” then moves to a critique of science and the generation before her in the second stanza: “[Our parents] couldn’t imagine science failing in the end, / unsinkable science, the laboratory of miracles” (8-9). Finally, she ends with the suggestion that the deep questions individuals want to ask about themselves and their place in the world are perhaps repressed by some “tranquilizing waltz” (13) which urges us back to “the safety of our seats” (14).
In short, this is a compilation accessible to the average reader and worthy of the literary community’s praise.
You can buy On Speaking Terms by Connie Wanek from Copper Canyon Press here.
Read more of her poems at poetryfoundation.org/poets/connie-wanek