An albino buck “in the closing mouth of the woods;” a hasty raccoon caught in a trap; an ambitious, unpunishable cat—each play its role in the ecosystem of Mark Wunderlich’s third collection, The Earth Avails. And yet the strangest, most derelict animal to roam its pages is human: The sufferer “sick with the knowledge / of my unworthiness.” Wunderlich’s poems explore the fertile tension between feral nature and the rituals with which we try to hold it at bay.
Wunderlich constructs his landscapes from elemental dichotomies—the visible and invisible, human and animal, natural and industrial—but uses the inherently deconstructive work of the lyric to break down those binaries, bringing the land and its human inhabitants together to share a single plight. In “Coyote, with Mange,” for instance, the speaker questions why the “Unreadable One”—one of a variety of transcendental subjects Wunderlich addresses—has punished the creature, why he has “taken from him that which kept him / from burning in the sun like a man?” In doing so, Wunderlich enacts—as the coyote loses its fur and becomes “like a man”—a kind of fall from grace.
Wunderlich registers a fierce lament for the limited utility of human social invention—our bulwark against the vast unknown, nature’s ungovernable will—through a series of prayers. Indeed, Wunderlich’s world, where a property dispute renders no verdict and the surveyor gets “struck by lightning and is dead,” where a servant begs for protection “from a world in which the Creature / presses his stinking hoof to our neck,” suggests little recourse or reprieve beyond the unilateral hopefulness of prayer: “You who planted language on our tongues, / given us words then taught us how to beg…”
Throughout The Earth Avails, nature is a source of fear and awe. And yet, within the fatalism of its God-like figures, lovers, natural elements, there is a violent beauty, too: “The day will come for you to draw / the bright sickle of the moon / across my wooly throat. / Do it with love, without regret.” And it is this beauty, Wunderlich suggests, that we—both poet and reader—must keep in mind as we tally our losses: “Remind me that behind this knotted tapestry … is a shining world that must remain hidden /so it may remain unspoiled.”