In nearly 20 books of poetry over a span of more than 50 years, David Wagoner has spoken in a clear, sane, almost serene voice that makes his...

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“Good Morning and Good Night”

by David Wagoner

University of Illinois, 142 pp., $19.95

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In nearly 20 books of poetry over a span of more than 50 years, David Wagoner has spoken in a clear, sane, almost serene voice that makes his lyrical verse seem utterly natural, even inevitable. One feels that each moment he preserves in words could have been expressed no other way.

“Good Morning and Good Night,” divided into eight sections, moves gracefully from small domestic events to glimpses of other writers at work (Emerson, Ibsen) to vignettes drawn from urban life, and more. Often described as a nature poet, Wagoner turns his attention to the landscape here as well, and shows us what has been in front of us all along but that our habitual superficiality has kept hidden.

In “Climbing a Tree,” the Seattle-area poet sets out to rescue his daughter’s kite, snared high in a maple. Ascending, he finds himself “crotch to crotch with the home of our ancestors,” the place where our forebears went for safety “after foraging the strange, wide-open savanna.” For modern man, however, safety is on the ground. He returns empty handed, and more than a kite is lost. The seemingly secure earth is doubtful now:

We’re having to walk away /

Without it, despite her wailing, as the night /

Begins down here on dangerous grassland.

The beginning night may be any number of things, but one is surely the little girl’s realization that there are things even her brave daddy cannot set right.

“Trying to Fall Asleep Beside an Iguana” hints at another loss. As the poet lounges in the sun, he notices an iguana nearby. Distracted, the poet ponders what the unblinking creature knows: a lot, it seems, not least a selflessness that all of us are doomed to learn. The iguana

Knows better what to do about fruit flies /

Buzzing around ripe melon, and which of us /

Can be both here and out of sight in an instant.

Cursed or blessed with foresight, the poet knows that one blink of the eye might be all that separates him from oblivion.