To the Wren is a hefty volume containing a chapbook entitled A Truck Marked Flammable; five poetry collections; and new poems by the late Jane Mead.
I enjoyed making my way through the almost 600 pages, reading a few poems each morning before any news of the day. To the Wren is an elegant book with elegant poems that pay homage to the poet’s mother and father, the natural world, and beauty “in the least honored and most despised places,” as Philip Levine wrote in his foreword to Mead’s first stunning collection: The Lord and the General Din of the World (1996).
In “Concerning that Prayer I Cannot Make,” the poet’s dilemma allow readers to ponder our own and–it is hoped–come up with a way to honor ourselves. The speaker begins: “Jesus, I am cruelly lonely / and I do not know what I have done / nor do I suspect that you will answer me.” She speaks from beneath a railway bridge to the “bare trees” and “the muddy bottle shards” and ends by declaring: “listen, I am holy.”
The poem is a beautiful acknowledgement of the precarious nature of ourselves and our planet.
The title poem, “To the Wren,” is from The Usable Field (2008), a memorial to the poet’s father Giles Mead (1928 – 2003). The poems are spare in their depiction of grief and place and compassion.
World of Made and Unmade (2016) is a memorial to Nancy Morgan Whitaker, the poet’s mother. The poems are untitled and their first lines on the Table of Contents pages appear to be a poem itself. The collection’s title is from a poem that begins “In my father’s big bed,” which continues with memories of the poet’s mother: “she drew the fish / for his publications . . . “ There are drawings of fish within the poem.
Along with the medications that must be administered is the tending to the land and its workers as the poet’s mother is dying and after: “The day after my mother died / we finished the grape harvest / and the day after that / Ramon and Joe and Ruben / began spreading hay . . . “
Lots of white space surrounds the poems in World of Made and Unmade, as if to depict space between the living and the dying, between the house and the cabin where the poet’s mother lay dying. And there are symbols of white within the poems: papers, “ – the drafts of contracts, the permits, / — the white binder of death instructions. / The little white flags of prescriptions.”
Each word has weight and significance in Jane Mead’s poetry. I’ll always remember hearing “Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make” for the first time and the place I heard it: at a retreat I was attending on poetry and prayer. That‘s a good description of this poet’s impeccable accounting of the beauty, the urgency, and the fragility of all life.