Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems

by Stephen Burt

“[I]n Minnesota, such are the limits,” Wanek quips in one of many thoughtful new poems. The limits on conversation, the limits of life and death, the limits on what we are willing to admit even to ourselves, have been her great subjects, raising her above the equally charming and plainspoken poets of garden, farm, and household whom she resembles at first glance. “[P]eople, especially Minnesotans ... want to find a way to like you,” the Duluth-based poet opines, and her wry, observant free verse (much of it drawn from her three earlier collections) remains easy to share and easy to like. Mixed feelings about becoming an empty nester, mourning for a father, the disappointments of even a fortunate life, the quirky fauna, beautiful flora, and laconic citizens of the Upper Midwest, all animate her pages, and all should let Wanek appeal to fans of Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, or Linda Pastan. But Wanek has more and stranger things to see: Here are sharp humor and not-quite-bitter ironies, “pickles ... croaking all night / in the icebox,” garlic with its “inch of green ambition,” a man who lived next to a graveyard and therefore—why not?— “liked to ski among the headstones,” “daylilies ... on stems that would support them, / like some stage mother, on a world tour.” Come to Wanek looking for inspiration and you may get what you seek, but you will also get sentences that end up sharper, more like parables (as in Kay Ryan) or like Solomonic wisdom. The title poem concludes in what could be quiet celebration, or protest, or muted disappointment: “I counted every modest thing / twice, and called the world fair.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.