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Mark Wunderlich's Poems of Work and Worship 

Heaven Sent

click to enlarge ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel

The stone house near Catskill, set back up a long snowy driveway, suggests a church with its peaked roof and leaded-glass windows. The sacrament practiced within is writing poetry.

Mark Wunderlich stands in the doorway, wearing a black jacket over a collarless shirt, jeans, and boiled wool slippers; a black cat slinks around his legs. The white room is impeccably neat, with a double row of antlers over the mantle, and the scent of unfurling hyacinths.

Despite the fire in the woodstove, the house is cold; Wunderlich has barely been under its roof. He flew home last night after reading from his just-published The Earth Avails (Graywolf, 2014) in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and spent all day at Sarah Lawrence, where he's guest teaching this semester in addition to his long-term job at Bennington College. Tomorrow he'll leave before dawn to continue his book tour in California.

If all this travel exhausts him, he's hiding it well. Affable and articulate, he settles into a chair by the fire to talk about The Earth Avails and the home that inspired it, which he bought with his former partner James 11 years ago. They'd been living in subsidized artist housing in Provincetown, but found Cape Cod real estate prices "impossible." Next stop, Hudson Valley.

Built in 1715 and restored by a former owner, the stone house had become derelict. Pipes had frozen, raccoons had moved in, and the snow-covered mound outside the front door was a midden of trash, including three Christmas trees still strung with lights.

Though the realtor urged them toward more upscale properties, they fell in love with the house's good bones, and spent seven years fixing it up. When they split "very amicably" two years ago, Wunderlich stayed.

The Earth Avails was "born out of the renovation and restoration of the house." As they removed literal layers of history, Wunderlich kept a box of vintage wallpapers, linoleum, blacksmith nails, old glass bottles, a straight razor. When they removed a wall, exposing insulation made from cow hair, "it released this animal smell from 200 years ago," he marvels; a poem opens:

Dwell in my house. Take up your spot in the tightest of corners,
in the crumbling cow-hair plaster mending the wall

While researching the house's lineage, he found a family will listing a weaver's loom and two dependent slaves. Who had lived here in centuries past, he wondered, and what was the fabric of their daily lives? Among his findings was a folk-religious document called a Heaven-letter, which he describes as "a mix of prayer, admonition, and chain letter. They were printed as broadsides and framed for display, tucked into the family Bible, or folded and carried for luck."

Other poems were inspired by a 19th century prayer book he found while visiting his parents in western Wisconsin. Although his ancestors settled the region in the 1830s, circa Little House in the Big Woods, Wunderlich grew up in a 1970s split-level ranch on the banks of the Mississippi.

He was raised in the United Church of Christ, "kind of a bloodless Protestantism" with roots in the Swiss Reformation; he spent summers at Bible Camp. His mother was a church elder—and an atheist. "When I asked if she saw any irony in being a top church lady and an unbeliever, she said, 'This way, the Lord doesn't get in my way,'" reports Wunderlich. "My father is a believer, but quite private about it."

His father is a retired accountant; his mother taught nursing at Winona State College. They also farmed, keeping as many as 200 sheep, a herd of dairy goats, horses, and, sometimes, hogs; Wunderlich and his brother had daily chores. "I spent a lot of my childhood looking after animals," he says, and many appear in his poems: sheep, crows, a wild boar, a mange-plagued coyote, an albino buck leaping like "a white tooth / in the closing mouth of the woods." His language is precise, austere yet lyrical, with images that startle: overhead the dumb sky strips off / its wet shirt and tosses it to the wind's hands."

Speaking of...

  • Nina Shengold catches up with poet Mark Wunderlich at his home in Catskill.

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