CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Night is Simply a Shadow" by Greta Wrolstad

This is the fifth of a five-part, weeklong series to celebrate the life and work of Greta Wrolstad. Her book, Night is Simply a Shadow, was published posthumously this summer by Tavern Books. We have brought together a collection of memories, poems, stories, and reviews by those who knew and loved Greta and her work. 


Reviewed by Nathan Bartel

wrolstad-shadow-01I should say at the outset that I knew & was tremendously fond of Greta Wrolstad. She arrived at the University of Montana one year after I did. I had graduated & moved back to the midwest when I got the call from a friend that Greta had been in an accident; I was on a bridge over a small Kansas creek when my phone rang again, this time to say she had died. I am not an impartial reader of Greta’s work. I’m proud to say my friends and I workshopped several of these poems. I can also say the world is a much poorer place without Greta, but I’m glad I knew her for the time I did, & I feel lucky I get to read her poems now.

A reviewer’s job is to consider a book in its context. Greta died in 2005; Night Is Simply a Shadow was published in 2013, in the thick of a cultural obsession with apocalypse. In cinema & television especially the earth has been scorched and scorched again, scoured of its people & lightly peppered with the evidence of the societies that once inhabited it. This is in no way to suggest that Greta’s work presages any of this; it doesn’t. But what I think Night Is Simply a Shadow does do is provide us an alternative vision of what “the end” might look like. It is a collection obsessed with the liminal, where one element gives way to the next. The first (& greatest) poem in the book, “Notes on Sea & Shore,” actually feels mistitled to me; the sea is there, to be sure, but the poet’s gaze seems cleft to the place where water & land meet. & this is only one example; spend a day with the book & you can’t help but notice the ecotones these poems investigate & inhabit. “Incessant digging / makes an edge of everything,” “Taking Place” begins, & the same poem ends, “We have arrived at this // depth with empty pockets, awaiting / the chisel, the divining eye” (27-28).

The core irony here - one of which I am immensely glad - is that, for all the treasure spent by various entertainment industries searing the world’s end to the backs of our eyes with one blinding blast after another, Night Is Simply a Shadow, diminutive in size at 54 pages & carefully crafted by Tavern Books, successfully stands up to those blockbusters & quietly but insistently suggests other possible ends. Greta’s work is not cataclysmic in any traditional sense; these poems do not claim provenance in speculative fiction or fiery prophecy, nor do they address an audience beyond the intimacy of the poet & her readers. That said, I cannot help but think that the central concern of this book is terminal in nature. This feels overly grim even as I write it out, & it would be reductive to claim that these poems are only about where the known world falls away; nevertheless, a sense not of finality but of continual passing on or away, an edge at once sharp & dissolving, pervades.

& yet - this was one of Greta’s great gifts as a poet - the poems never feel melodramatic or macabre. In fact, the deftness with which they move is astonishing. “I could deny the keeping,” the tenth section of “St. Petersburg” begins, “Enter the slip- / stream and be carried, watch birch trees / slide away, apartments make skeletons / of themselves, monasteries find the earth / once more” (34). To direct the reader’s eye so effortlessly, to fill it with such images with seeming ease, is marvelous. & then the end of the twelfth: “If not kept / then what is learned. If not learned, / what is honored. What repaired. The frame / missing its center. No tether to draw back” (36). What would buckle in the hands of lesser writers feels effervescent here. The choice to replace question marks with periods is not frivolous linguistic flex but a deep architectural necessity, keeping the tone precise & light.

The book is not perfect. Of course it’s not. Night Is Simply a Shadow aches at times for a greater fullness, not so much in terms of page length as what comes from greater breadth of choice, but this unavoidable given the circumstances & no one’s fault. I have quibbles with the choice of collection title, too; to me, the larger project calls for nomenclature more pointed & risky than the one it has.

That said, the book on the whole is tremendous in its execution & timely in its arrival, & certain poems feel incredibly...well, they feel important in a way that is difficult to describe. To read them again; to return again to the last section of “Notes…,” which, each time I encounter it, scoops a new hollow in me; I wish I could just write that section out for you; I won’t. It is genius, written by a preternaturally gifted poet. It talks about a river & stones in that river. It talks about the end.