SHARKPACK Poetry Review

An imprint of FATHOMBOOKS.

Emily Wolahan’s “Argument in Optative”

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.’

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