In the poem “16 Reasons You Shouldn’t Like Me (And I Don’t Like Me Either),” Gillian Wegener writes: “I mine the cupboards of memory / And all I come up with is / A treasury of embarrassments.” But there is nothing embarrassing about this new full-length collection of poems, This Sweet Haphazard.
Wegener has written two previous poetry collections, served as the poet laureate for the city of Modesto in California, and has won the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize for two consecutive years. Despite these accomplishments, Wegener has very few pretensions, adopting instead a posture of modesty and even self-mockery in the poems that make up This Sweet Haphazard. In the poem “My Autopsy,” for example, the poet says: “We’re all fragile as china cups / when you come down to it, we silly creatures, without exoskeleton // or much inner strength.”
Wegener’s many strengths as a poet include a sharp eye for the seemingly mundane things in life: bugs, small towns, cafes, marriage and parenting. Her poems are most often poems of place, rooted in the specifics of geography, landscape, and architecture, but they are not only that. For she also explores the space between the places: where the human heart meets the exterior façade. The small town may not have all the allure of a big city, however:
It isn’t so bad. It’s an okay town.
We know where all the roads go,
and we know where to get good coffee,
and we know what time the train pulls through.
We know too we’re more than soil, more than sky,
more than what you’ve read in the news,
and no, it isn’t pretty, but we still live here, and
tonight the moon will rise, almost full,
over this sweet haphazard of home.
Divided into four parts, the terrain and topics covered in This Sweet Haphazard are vast and various: mountains with “their sides as steep and pleated / as the empress’s nightgown,” a despiser of neighborhood fireworks on July Fourth who nevertheless wants to “run forward now / and hold those frenzied stars,” a soup line at a Baptist church where a woman hikes up her skirt in the middle of the street to do a dance “furious and brief,” and a poem inspired by a headline from the LA Times on June 30, 2015 that reads: Woman gives birth, fights off bees, starts wildfire in Northern California. This last poem, “New Life with Bees and Fire,” is particularly well done, being narrated by the newborn child who intones: “My mother’s head was wreathed in nonsense. / My mother’s head was wreathed in the shadows of owls / And sometimes in stars, a million winks around her.”
Throughout This Sweet Haphazard, Wegener maintains a consistent poetic voice: a voice free from condescension, intelligent and sympathetic to the human condition. She is a poet that knows what we want and gives us what we need:
We all want answers, reasons, unfurled before us like a good novel,
like a novel that will be read and kept on the shelf for a long, long time,
like a story that will be told and retold, each of us an Odysseus. So,
open me up, kind examiner. I, too, want to be a story no one will ever forget.