CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella" by Christian Anton Gerard

Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella by Christian Anton Gerard
Review by Caitlin Mackenzie

Before delving into Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella—the smart and stunning debut from Christian Anton Gerard—I had to do some homework. Let this preface not deter you; such preemptive study is a sure sign of tradition-honoring verse.

So, here are a few important items of note.

Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella translates from the Greek as “star-lover” and “star.” And Wilmot was the 2nd Earl of Rochester, whose poetry was heavily censored during the Restoration Era, that underrated time in history when intellect and pleasure collided in response to Puritanism. Really, the beats have nothing on the court of Charles II.

In Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella Gerard applies both the tradition and the ethos of this time, these poets, to the twenty-first-century constructs of love, sex, desire. And, much in line with our predecessors, Gerard finds his verse—and the narrative therein—at the mercy of an implacable paradox: mystery stokes desire, but intimacy pursues knowledge, extinguishes mystery. Two lovers, husband and wife, Wilmot and Stella, give themselves full force to the efforts of love; they are sometimes hopeful, sometimes dejected, but mostly their struggle takes place in the liminal, ambiguous space of both.

“I spend each breath / introducing myself as if / I remember who I am,” we hear from Wilmot. And from Stella, “You look like you need.” Here we see how evasive human desires and needs can be. Despite the overwhelming evidence that life’s only constant is the visceral lack of constants, we dismiss the fluxing, chaotic nature of our romantic relationships, believers in stability: “But I guess marriage is about death, till death do us part, but Death, then, makes an awkward threesome.”

Gerard employs a breadth of forms, utilizing couplets, quatrains, prose, and enough enjambment to evoke the needed amounts of chaos. Often his line and form mirrors the emotional interiority of the subject, making each poem an athletic display of intentionality and introspection.

We were dressed in something bigger

than everything, except the sound
           of a bow’s opening down-

stroke like fingers in a river. Waiting held me:
           Downstroke. Upstroke. That simple

waver. A cocoon in the wind. Double-brass vibrato,
            and I was born.

This theme of vastness, being “dressed in something bigger,” shows up again and again in the pages of Wilmot, much like the meta haunting our moments of dailyness: drunken shadowboxing in winter on a back porch when your wife leaves on an Amtrak train, headed North, further into winter, because “Maybe exorcism, // more or less. Something all guts no skull.” The intellect and heart coil and uncoil throughout Wilmot Here, to which Wilmot responds in dutiful, empathetic frustration. We sense his primeval awareness that body, heart, and head do not always (or frequently) work cohesively. It is for this reason, that this balking, angry, longing, exasperated Wilmot is so fiercely relatable.

Gerard’s persona poems are so much more than personas. Wilmot and Stella are complex, multi-dimensional paragons of the sloppy human experience, so much of which is marked by our longing to know the self better. “I have burnt up shadows staring into myself. / Still I cannot see” says Wilmot. And in the same poem, “I looked at a vessel filled with Aurora Borealis / becoming more and more and words would do nothing.”

It’s not surprising these lines appear in the same poem. Naturally, when a poet feels estranged from his words, that they’ve become nihilistic, he is concomitantly estranged from himself.

And the reader can’t blame Wilmot for his despair, or even for his mistakes, of which there are quiet a few. Because, again, we relate to his relentless efforts to love and to love well. “I’m your Astrophil” says Wilmot, “I lodged thee in my heart, and, being blind / by Nature born, I gave thee mine eyes.” And, Stella: “You’re my bullshitter . . . but let’s make our bodies a game. / When you can’t take it, touch me like you own me.”

Later Wilmot admits, “Isn’t it scarier that we don’t / know what else to do.” Gerard’s writing is simultaneously searching, honest, stark, and cadent. If anyone believes persona poetry is a step removed, I encourage them to immerse themselves in the dire, pathos-infused story of Wilmot and Stella.

Stella says, “I changed my name for you. / I don’t want to be / your crime- // scene, pistol barrel gleam / that quick flash, then / nothing.” Even in the face of a relationship’s end, despite all the hardship and pain that may have comprised that relationship, we hope against nothingness, that our struggle wasn’t for naught. It’s easy to feel like an end signifies a failure, but that would be both erasure of the past and negligence of the new beginning. Gerard gives us good reason to hope in the work inherent in the efforts of love and words.

About the Author:
Christian Anton Gerard is a poet and Early Modern scholar. He has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Prague Summer Program, Pushcart Prize nominations, an Academy of American Poets Award, and the 2013 Iron Horse Literary Review Discovered Voices Award. Gerard’s creative and critical work appears widely in national literary and critical journals. He lives in Fort Smith, AR, where he is an Assistant Professor of English, Rhetoric, and Writing at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith.

About the Reviewer:
Caitlin Mackenzie is a book critic and essayist living in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared on The Rumpus, The Toast, Lambda Literary, Fugue, and more.