To the Wren: Collected & New Poems

reviewed by Laura Eve Engel

“I speak softly to the world,” writes Mead in her first collection, “but I can never explain the way life fades / as it approaches.” Yet the experience of moving through her collected works is one of bearing witness to a singular, soft-voiced persistence that takes aim at the “can never,” the unexplainable: “The place where the shadow breaks in two is the world / she wants to get to, a place with space for the mind.” While the mind here necessarily matures over time, these initial gnostic concerns remain central, developing and deepening and even occasionally referencing their own earlier iterations. In book after book Mead attempts to peek past the hard boundary of the body to whatever lies beyond: “Where does the world go / and what’s that other world / that will not keep us?” Almost uncanny in its symmetry—her first book revolves around her father’s struggles with addiction; her last, a profoundly moving book-length accounting of her mother’s death—and aware of the failure of even the most attentive intellect to fully grasp the “[b]ody in mind-darkness,” this collection pulses, as if itself alive, between interrogation and faith, mirroring the wobbling of a mind that must learn to live with the reality of its own eventual undoing. It’s both remarkable and telling that this essential volume, in which a lifetime of work coheres into a kind of secular devotional, is practically presaged in one of Mead’s earliest poems: “I wanted to make a prayer / I spent the youthful part / of a life-time on it.”

This review originally appeared in the Books Noted section of American Poets, Spring-Summer 2019.