Even from the title, you know you’re getting into something unusual. Wendy Videlock’s The Dark Gnu and Other Poems is a farcical combination of rules and shenanigans, truths and nonsense, stories and impossibilities. These contrasts bounce against each other in the language and poems, and we are given an unexpected experience in contemporary poetry. Videlock acknowledges influences from Mother Goose, Strega Nona, and Mnemosyne, so perhaps we should expect something for children, but these poems, although delightful in that way, are not for children alone. We find blue truths for our adult selves, too.
Videlock is also the illustrator of this collection, just as Shel Silverstein and Tomie dePaola illustrated their own collections of “children’s” poetry. This may be a clever disguise for work that clearly vacillates between experience and imagination. Her dreamy watercolor illustrations are this same combination of chance as when a subject meets an unpredictable medium. From “Said the Witch of Slain Valley” we are given impossible images in measured language:
They wanted to borrow my cane and my hoof
and hobble the albino fields
where cauliflower and asparagus bloom,
there, in the upstairs room.
Then, in the next poem, “To the Woman in the Garden,” with nothing supernatural, we are shown the irony of not appreciating whatever gardens we find ourselves in:
You did not notice the roses, the stones, or even
the toad, the child,
the sapling, the totem
pole, the crow, the dusk,
or the hummingbird,
the mantis, the dove,
or the hushed word
but spoke instead,
but spoke at length
of the horrible
The poems are primarily metrical and rhymed, which lend themselves to humor, fantasy, and children’s themes. However, this also allows the serious poems a place to resonate within the context of fantasy. “Some People” and “Sometimes” are like that. In “Sometimes” she says, “My heart is a thing that comes unhinged, / and I can be blind as a bat.” These are metaphors for serious human qualities that we all possess, organized within a rhymed structure and within playful language.
Videlock has the potential to nail things down as much as to open them up through gifted metaphors and outright fantasy. She also gives us the key to understanding the scope of the book in “As You Would a Peach”:
In this poem
things are held loosely
as you would a peach.
There is no crate.
There are no feet.
The book’s title poem, however ingenious, does not deliver the significance of its adjective or its purpose for naming the collection. Is it supposed to remind us of Mother Goose? That is the trick of titles; they must fulfill many roles at once. The more elusive they are, the more they need to resonate when given the chance. The rest of this collection, however, overcomes this small shortfall.