There are two quotes at the front of Christian Anton Gerard’s new poetry collection, Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella. The first is Sir Philip Sidney’s first sonnet in the Astrophil & Stella sequence, a series of love poems in the Petrarchan form. The second is an excerpt from a letter written by John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester to his wife. Laid alongside one another, the pieces introduce us to the driving force of Gerard’s book. There is immediate tension on the page, generated by the complexity of those two voices, Sidney and Wilmot. Both the poem and the letter give us voices that are wrapped up in love and guilt. We will return to this.
The poems in Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella track the lives of one couple, Wilmot and Stella. They are married. They are not Wilmot, Earl of Rochester or Sidney’s Stella in any literal sense, though their point of origin is clear. Wilmot cheats. Stella struggles with what to do. Wilmot struggles with what not to do. Their pasts intrude on the present. Push and pull. Escalation. They tumble toward an end-point.
The beauty of linked poems is in the layering, the stacking of one on another. Gerard gives us an image of Wilmot and Stella’s wedding in “Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella; or Apotheosis.” A page later, he lets Wilmot explain the origin of his affair in “You Fell in Love with Her Elbows?” It’s a wonderful movement, and the blank space between the two poems generates trajectory.
Gerard does this again and again in the collection. Stella’s “I’ve Been Angry Before” shifts, two pages later, to “Note Stella Taped to the Fridge.” The majority of the poems can’t really be described as narrative in nature, but the juxtapositions, the shifting of one to another creates the movement that creates narrative.
3. That aforementioned guilt
Here is Wilmot, in “You Fell in Love with Her Elbows,” trying to account for the unaccountable:
The point is Jesus I fell for elbows
I told her so after the reading
I said I don’t mean to be creepy
but you have beautiful elbows and she looked at me like
the German girl I accidentally dropped on some discotheque’s dance floor
in Munich who made me kiss her cheek and bow before
she’d keep dancing…
The lines sprawl, and Wilmot tries for metaphor, his words and meaning both getting away from him. He stabs at honesty. By the end, all he’s left with is guilt and the bewildering notion that he’s lost control:
I showered then before coming
to bed to you and she came to me again in sleep reaching like she did
for my zipper in her backseat I was crying I left my body and you
She liked that I cried
She said it would feel good and it did and I let her and she let me and
your father was right about me Farmers feel the rain two days away.
4. That aforementioned love
All that guilt doesn’t really matter without the other half of the equation set up in those opening quotes. Love and guilt in tandem, conflated, blended and conjoined. That makes for complexity, and it grants Gerard’s poems a hard-earned honesty, a depth and a resonance missing from simple declarations of love or simple confessions of guilt.
Consider “You’ve Become Smoke in My Lungs, She Wrote,” in which Stella parses her feelings for Wilmot:
you burn there
in my chest—Kittens scratching
a window screen,
long grass to
knee-caps moving through fields. But
breath won’t hold forever and
before smoke billows out, I make like a polar bear
rug rasping to my knees.
There’s anger there, but there’s also the dragging weight of connection. Gerard balances the two as well as any writer I’ve seen.
The final poem in the collection, “And Laid Down in His Naked, Endless Head,” in Wilmot’s voice, takes on the form of the Sidney sonnet that opens the collection. We have ping-ponged between Wilmot and Stella, have seen the movement of their lives. Now, at the close, Gerard returns us to where we began, cycles us back and revises the form, adapts it to the lives he’s created in these pages. Wilmot, in the closing moments, is unable to articulate complete thoughts, is wrapped still in Stella:
Stella Sailing Stella there Stella where
are stars The farm Stella The Field Stella
You Stella Me There are no stars tonight
Stella tomorrow Stella I cannot
see Stella in Hell Stella in life Oh!
The real brilliance of Gerard’s collection is his ability to balance the origins of these lives – complete with call-backs to poets as diverse as Sidney, Wilmot, Williams, and Whitman – with the emotions he’s developed for these particular characters, independent of tradition. It’s a hard thing to pull off, that balance, but he does it on nearly every page. It makes for a collection that rewards the reader who knows that tradition as well as the reader who knows only the lives laid before us on these pages. Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella is a remarkable book. As with all the best poetry, it creates its own world, one that is both deeply familiar and startlingly original.
Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella is available at http://www.christianantongerard.com.