In recent months, only Malachi Black’s LAUDS has struck me with as much force as William Wenthe’s “Bitter Lake”; patency of image combined with serious cogitation turn these relatively direct pieces into moveable tunnels.
‘But for’ is such an interesting phrase to open with, isn’t it?—we’re immediately set into a suspended space that waits for a clause to situate us, and the phrase reads as ‘save for,’ ‘excepting,’ and ‘in spite of’ at once, so that the speaker seems to have taken into account human frailty in the face of wilderness, simple desire for escape, and all the telegraph inherent in ‘gestures’ at once. In terms of this ‘oblong of mercy sliced/from the map[,]’ I’m brought back to—where else—a moment in Silent Hill 2, and a track titled “End of Small Sanctuary.” In that case, all the static of approaching enemies was put aside; all the harried pin-point turns and beasts made to outmatch your crude weaponry could be forgot, and you had a room, a soundtrack, time enough to grab a glass of water.
That reflection made me say to Wenthe: ‘True, I wanted refuge.’ And without it, back in the world of the poem, I say again to him: ‘true.’
Yet the rocked and real stunning power of “Bitter Lake” is in this sudden Lear/Cordelia image, which approaches from a complete blind spot. After consideration, I think the metaphors he chooses—a ‘host’ of geese and accompanying water—are such an unusual stand-in for the king and his good daughter that a reader is torn—really torn—from Wenthe’s implicit comparison between man’s desire for refuge and the refuge Cordelia found in Lear’s arms. Therefore an entire reconstruction of the 12-line poem becomes necessary before we accomplish any perspective. I’ve sat here and shook head for more than a few moments.
Valéry’s assertion about Poetry’s marriage to exact replication of the poet’s language comes to mind.
I’ve already started to re-read King Lear, with this piece as motivation. I am given a dark satisfaction thinking of Cordelia and Lear as ‘bitter,’ Mr. Wenthe.