Jeffrey Wainwright, As Best We Can (Carcanet, 2020)
What is life? What is death? What are poetry and art for? Such fundamental questions lie at the heart of Jeffrey Wainwright’s recent collection of poems, As Best We Can, written at the height of his creative powers. The opening poem, ‘Give me a line’, tells us right away what kind of book is in our hands – poems that assert we can begin anywhere, observe anything, and take those beginnings and observations to the nth degree to consider meaning and what it is like being in the world. The poem starts with ‘any line’, the colour ‘periwinkle blue’, and a magpie, and ends with an evocation of mortality: ‘until we shall be separated.’ This odyssey continues through the book, and we are included explicitly: ‘you and I’.
Geoffrey Hill once asserted that ‘Great poetry is an act of unfailing attention’. The energy and thrust of this book come from Wainwright’s unfailing, even insistent, attention and exploration; from the steady accretion of insight and feeling; and from the form and rhythm of both the individual poems and the shape of the book as a whole. His employment of wide-ranging tones and dialects, in concert with his skill at handling free verse poems and those that bring to bear more traditional formal considerations, is key to the collection’s vitality. If art lies in what happens to the reader or viewer, As Best We Can is art of a very high order; by the end ...
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