It was the grammarian in me that was first magnetized by Wolahan’s “Argument in Optative.” It is the poem itself that expresses an optative mood: given the fact that it must do so without English verbs in optative, and given the fact that our setting is a building site, not a lover’s bed or sepulcher, this is no small achievement.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Wolahan’s construction is deft. Consider how she skirts attributions this close to ‘pathetic fallacy’ stuff:

[. . .] the illuminated building/golden and empty, its construction stalled as/all movement in this area is stalled [. . .]

[. . .] a whitening of the sky/in a winter sunset, its hollowed-out stories, structural posts [. . .]

and the powerful ‘There is also blue/mixed in the white, diluted but careful sense/of girders uniting a canyon dispersed/over river water.’ Of course, it is the general suggestion of human correspondence to the site (read: human involvement in its ‘construction,’ be the worker foreman or poet) that gives the poem a special poignancy—but such a correspondence is never too overt. Even the speaker’s interjection in line 21 is coolly balanced.

Having done a bit of personal study of Latin and Greek, I’ve always been covetous of true ‘subjunctives,’ ‘optatives,’ and two-word phrases that translate into whole English sentences. I like that Wolahan seems to be working through what a true optative in English might look like; that it might not be a verb-based structure at all; that it may involve a hovering smoke that is both insubstantial and ‘loosened and caught/in the wind [. . .].’ Thus the feeling of ‘if only’—unless it is iterated as ‘if only x, oh, if only z’—might only be honestly ‘felt’ through a gentle management like the speaker’s in “Argument in Optative”—as quickly as ‘lack’ enters, it is marigold, ‘winging out,’ pale, and ‘something else.’