It’s only fitting that a book by Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina’s poet laureate, is one of the first in the University of South Carolina Press’s new Palmetto Poetry Series. For a book of prose, New and Selected Poems is a hefty volume featuring poetry from her three earlier books, Noticing Eden, Despite Gravity, and The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle, as well as enough new poems to fill a chapbook.
It’s always interesting to see how a particular poet’s work has evolved over time, and this is especially true for Wentworth. These poems span 11 years, and though certain themes reappear — nature and family, most notably — they grow and change throughout the volume.
In the early poems, for example, it’s the South Carolina landscape that makes the most appearances. In the new works, however, Wentworth seems to revisit her native New England more and more, in poems like “The Weight It Takes,” where the speaker returns to a river “in the white silence that is winter.” In “Family Reunion,” Wentworth’s speaker wanders through a wood that feels more northern than Southern, with logging roads and a path called Maple Trail “far from the sea, far from home.” The final poem in the volume, “My Light Year,” follows the speaker, again, through woods and back into her own past, where she finds a cedar that has been struck by lightning — she touches the “pink pulp/ rising from its center, as if the great tree/ had given birth in the night.”
Her poems on family have gone through their own metamorphosis, partly from the simple passing of time. “Of course, in the early poems my kids were little,” Wentworth says. “I have some poems about my kids and my family, my husband, but I’m kind of at a new cycle — my youngest just graduated from college, and my mother, I think we have to move her in with us. My oldest son is engaged. It’s a transitional stage.”
One of the most powerful poems in the volume is actually one about her children when they were young, although it’s a new poem. Called “Manacles,” the poem details her children’s discovery of a set of manacles while digging for buried treasure in their backyard on Sullivan’s Island. Their gleeful joy in discovery, and perhaps most of all, their innocence, is harshly juxtaposed against the horrifying nature of this “treasure.” “Taylor, the littlest one, is holding/ up a set of muddy rusting manacles. He is only four, and he/ can barely keep from dropping them on the ground. I take/ them from him. In my hands, they are heavy as bricks.” The poem ultimately inspired Wentworth to write a children’s book on the experience titled Shackles, published in 2009.
New and Selected Poems marks a sort of return to poetry for Wentworth, though she’s never stopped writing verse. In recent years her energies have been on other projects such as the aforementioned Shackles and a co-authored book on human rights she wrote with Juan Mendez called Taking a Stand, that was published in 2011. “[Taking a Stand] was enormously consuming,” Wentworth says. “I was writing poems, but they were sort of all over the place. I wanted to sink my teeth into some of those poems.”
She did just that during a recent fellowship that sent her to the Virginia Center for the Arts. One would think that working on new poetry, in addition to combing through her older works for poems to include, would be an overwhelming task, but Wentworth says it was pretty easy. “I knew exactly what belonged there,” she says. “You kind of know which poems stand on their own and that you feel good about. I did try to pull the threads of nature, family, social justice — I wanted some narrative threads.”
Now that this book is finished, she’s throwing herself back into poetry. She’s currently working on two new books of verse. New and Selected Poems, she says, helped her get back into her “poetry writing persona.” “I always find something redemptive about writing, especially if there’s something difficult. There’s something about being able to articulate emotional experiences, or wonder,” she says. “How do you articulate what it’s like when you look at your children? There’s something about a poem that can capture the essence of an overwhelming sensation.”