Spring Up Everlasting by William Woolfitt
Mercer University Press, 2020
Pages: 80. Price: $16.00
Wellsprings of faith, duty and manna for the forsaken in Woolfitt’s Spring Up Everlasting (Winner of the Adrienne Bond Poetry Award)
By Sarah Carey
As I maneuvered a left-over piece of quiche into a plastic baggie after lunch one day, careful to keep its jello-like substance intact, and pressed air out of the Ziploc before storing it in the refrigerator, a strange feeling of déjà vu came over me. After a few minutes of not being able to identify what I was vaguely flashing on, I recognized that this ordinary task had conjured parts of an extraordinary image from “What the Dust Drifts Down On,” a poem from William Woolfitt’s latest book, Spring Up Everlasting, which I’d begun reading a few days before.
This image was so powerful that it had returned to penetrate my psyche in the here and now.
The subject in the poem, which is set in coal mining country — Kanawha County, West Virginia — comes across a dead goldfinch on property he owns and once loved but now doesn’t recognize, experiencing the land as “unfamiliar, rewritten” after time and the loss of, presumably, his wife. His nature is to preserve and maintain his household, even as he stands amidst its demise, yet he can’t clean the smudges from the windows, a duty his wife had previously performed:
(she had a trick with newsprint and vinegar).
His land unfamiliar, rewritten, look for the dry well cap,
the empty creek—but animal bodies interrupt, another
dead goldfinch in the dogwood, wedged upright,
its head winter-gray, lifted, giving the testimony
of lung-clots. He ties a dated tag, lowers the finch
into his chest freezer, head tucked against breast,
slight in his hand, paper-wrapped, sealed in a plastic bag
from which he eased the extra air.
One can feel the ravages of time and loss on this farmer, whose state of mind is echoed in the rich imagery of the dead bird he meticulously tries to hold on to, as a symbol of his wife and the life he once knew. His tender ritual to preserve the creature’s body comes unbidden, as instinct: a desire to protect and preserve, emerging even as he witnesses the destruction all around him.
Recalling that poem as I hovered at my refrigerator that day reminded me of what I’ve always appreciated about Woolfitt’s work: He weaves multiple layers of the human experience into poems that, while easily accessible, operate at complex levels that invariably reverberate long after reading. Woolfitt accomplishes this effect once again in this collection, his third, in poems that paint vivid pictures of hard landscapes peopled with characters he has the uncanny ability to seemingly inhabit, just as the speaker in “The Wish to take Sacrament with the Red Knob Holiness Church”:
Sometimes I want to be joined, folded in,
taken into a body not my own,
changed the way grape juice
from a blue Mason jar and the chewed
saltine cracker dissolve on the tongue,
are transformed in the throat,
in the guts.
The hunger to be possessed, made new, transformed by a higher power he calls God, is a common theme in Woolfitt’s work. In this poem, we feel the speaker’s longing to be “folded in,” to believe the stories and the calling of Brother Roy and Sister Gladys as they show their love for this primitive, one-room church “with insurance calendars, the nativity on velvet, and fly swatters hanging on the walls,” through their caretaking routines:
the enjoyment Brother Roy describes,
want to untie my shoe, slip off my sock
while he sets out the dishpans,
while Sister Gladys plugs in
the coffee pot, heats water to mix
with chilly wall-water
pumped outside, water like I imagine
God’s spirit to be — clear, moving, free,
silver-bright in the deeps —
Woolfitt’s speaker here is both inside and outside of the church; he is drawn to this space, yet he cannot quite inhabit it. He wants the ease of unfettered belief; he longs for the uncomplicated, enjoyable faith of Brother Roy, and, let’s be honest, many of us do, too. As Lucille Clifton once said, “Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.” Woolfitt understands that what we see, feel and are drawn to is often not what we expect, and that ready answers don’t always exist.
The poems in Spring Up Everlasting include separate, yet intertwined, narratives involving an array of characters both human and animal, often struggling for meaning and/or survival. These vignettes make tongues of worship, writhes of rapture, monuments of grief and rituals of salvation both real and relevant to those who might, as his speaker often does, stand at the edge of faith or even outside of it. These characters may seem initially very different from us: They’re Brother Roy and Sister Gladys; they’re elk-killer Rulina and Sam Edes, that backslid sinner who shows up in church praying for redemption. We might initially find ourselves stereotyping some of these characters as quirky religious fundamentalists, but that would be — as we see when we absorb the situations Woolfitt brings us through their eyes — a big mistake.
One might argue that this is Woolfitt’s point — to show us that the will to salvage what we can of joy and hope in a hopeless world is what bonds us in humanity to others whose cultures and traditions we might be conditioned to experience, via our own inherent bias or history, as foreign. In fact, Woolfitt’s work reminds us that we all share the same primitive needs: for belief, acceptance and forgiveness; for the ability to testify and the courage to tell our stories.
Not all of Woolfitt’s characters in Spring Up Everlasting people the harsh landscapes of coal country; others seek the holy in international prisons, build new lives on the West Coast, travel to Mali seeking peace in sacred space, even team up to save endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica. But regardless of where we find them, the characters in Woolfitt’s universe all understand the ever-present proximity of death and destruction. Starvation, consumption by fire, torture, environmental degradation and mining accident are threads that link past to present to future in Woolfitt’s subjects. Yet they are not without joy, or without hope. Through prayer, hard labor, habits passed down through generations of ancestors and strengthened by whatever joy they hone, these characters form rituals that serve as lifelines. From “Jawbone:”
We would starve without music in our ears.
We can throw songs instead of stones
to drive away the spirits we fear.
We can make music with our bones.
“There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places,” Wendell Berry writes in his poem, “How to Be a Poet” (20-22). In Spring Up Everlasting, Woolfitt sharpened my own sense of linkages to the holy, not always to be found inside a church or some exotic locale. Peace can be found wherever we go to carve out a space for our innermost selves: where we feel at home or taken in, even as we mourn our dead and navigate hardship in ever changing landscapes.
Sarah Carey is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Heart Contracts (2016, Finishing Line Press) and Accommodations (2019, Concrete Wolf Poetry Series.) Her poems have appeared recently, or are forthcoming, in Grist, Yemassee, Atlanta Review, Stirring and elsewhere. Speaking of Marvels, a blog William Woolfitt founded and edits, has featured interviews with her, along with many other authors of chapbooks, novellas and books of various lengths.