The beauty of a “new and selected” book is that it can provide a wide-ranging introduction to readers unfamiliar with a poet while serving to remind familiar readers of all the reasons they loved the poet’s work in the first place. The risk sometimes is that drawing from a poet’s entire career can yield too diverse a book, one which lacks cohesion. That is not the case in A Wild Surmise. Although it includes poems from throughout Healy’s long career, the tone of the book is consistent—from the opening acknowledgments to the closing poem, the tone is celebratory, grateful, and entirely current. Whether a reader is already familiar with Healy’s work or not, the poems are engaging, the presentation is savvy, and the subjects (love, death, nature, urban life) are both timely and timeless.
A Wild Surmise contains selections from Building Some Changes (1976), A Packet Beating Like a Heart (1981), Ordinary Wisdom (1981), Artemis in Echo Park (1991), Women’s Studies Chronicles (1998), Passing (2002), and The Islands Project (2007), along with new work. It also, according to the title, contains recordings. In an introductory note, Healy discusses the contemporary debate about the future of the book in this electronic age and explains her choice to take advantage of technology by including QR codes with some of the poems. Any reader with a smartphone can download a free app, then scan the code and hear Healy reading the poem. As a poet who enjoys reading and hearing others read, I found this to be a lovely addition to the text.
Although the books represented in A Wild Surmise are all unique, there are also certain themes and topics that carry through them all. Many poems deal with love. There are poems of initial infatuation, such as “I Spent the Day With You,” which begins, “I spent the day with you like a drunken sailor / wanting you tattooed inside my life.” There are breakup poems: “The Words ‘Begin Again’” for example, which ends:
I know that what she took from me
did subtract from these bright wonders
and left me with a bitter wish
that hope counts
from an empty place,
and only from an empty place
does hope begin again.
Overall though, the love poems in A Wild Surmise are the poems of a long-term relationship, one that has lasted through many trials. In “Love Poem From Afar,” dedicated to Healy’s partner of twenty-five years, the speaker begins with the lyrical declaration “This morning I’m more lonely than the sky, / that flattened tray of tin and rain,” before describing all the things she wishes she could tell her lover about. “This would be another world / with you in it,” she says in the penultimate stanza, then corrects herself: “No—you are the world.”
Healy expresses her love of the natural world as well; the book includes several poems about her dogs and other animals, and in “Dividing the Fields” she also speaks lovingly of trees: “Plants would get most answers right / if left to themselves.” Another topic that surfaces throughout the collection is the poet’s life in Los Angeles. Healy writes about the city with both love and irony and often juxtaposes the urban with the natural world. In “Artemis in Echo Park” for example, she says, “The life before cement is ghosting up / through roadways that hooves and water / have worn into existence forever.” The awareness of the city’s history and the life that went on before it inform Healy’s love for the place.
Death also makes its presence known in several sections of the collection. Healy writes about her parents’ deaths, her partner’s cancer, the deaths of other poets, and, in the final section of new poems, her own mortality as well. In “What Does Death Want From Me?” the speaker says, “Death already has the best part, / mom and dad and my dogs. // So, death is shopping me now.” In spite of these losses, the book does not lose its joy. In the new poem that gives the collection its title, Healy writes of the long life she has shared with her partner. “No one else, no one else can claim us, / only the expansive and beautiful world // always before us.”
It is difficult to do justice to such an expansive and beautiful collection as Healy has put together here (I feel particularly remiss in not discussing the selections from The Islands Project, a book with which I was already happily acquainted), but reading it was a joy. Whether one is already a fan of Healy’s work or a new reader, A Wild Surmise is well worth adding to this fall’s reading list.