Julie Wenglinski: Amber



On a weedy summer night,
cicadas scrape their fossil song,
thundering the oak,
silver bellies winding down.

If I were not so drunk
and my ankle were not broken,
I’d stand beneath that tree
so I could drown.

Julie Wenglinski

Review by Benjamin Goluboff
There are lots of admiring things to say about Julie Wenglinski’s “Amber”—the simplicity and directness of the speaker’s voice, the way the title makes a dramatic monologue of these eight tight lines, how a narrative is hinted at, but its details withheld. (Who is Amber? How’d she break her ankle? Why does she want to drown?) Best of all is the way the poem continues a trope from Keats’s “Nightingale”—deep aesthetic experience prompts thoughts of self-extinction.

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou are pouring forth thy soul abroad
in such an ecstasy!

The same trope is present in Sexton’s “Starry Night” (with which “Amber” seems also to be in touch) and a dozen other texts in the tradition, but there is a charm in attaching the trope not to Van Gogh’s stars, or Keats’s bird, but to the humble cicada.

Review by Jacob Moran
The imagery here is astonishing. Albeit a brief poem, it takes you somewhere by the end of the first line. By the end, you wonder how you even got there.

Review by Kelly Weber
There’s something magical about a poem that can juxtapose a few achingly beautiful seasonal details with a few achingly human ones to create a scene instantly preserved, as it were, in amber. Wenglinski’s poem “Amber” reminds me, all at once, of “O Western Wind,” some of Li Bai’s poetry, and haiku in its contrast of human foibles with gorgeous nature imagery. Of course, the contrast is what makes the drunkenness not merely funny in an immediate sense, but funny in the most poignant, cosmic sense—deep humor that ends with the image of “drown.” The poem turns from the image of the dying cicadas to the drunk speaker with a hinge of genuine surprise, and the rhyme of “down” with “drown,” chiming the brief lives of cicadas and humans together, contains so much heat partly because the rhyme is so unexpected. The slant rhymes of “oak,” “drunk,” and “broken” sonically charge the poem and maintain a hard /k/ sound throughout (even in “scrape”) to remind us of the harshness of a season’s inevitable end. This sound play and the contrast of the two stanzas is what enables so much to be contained in hardly eight lines—a complete scene and a total image of a speaker and a season, just from what we have here. We fully feel the speaker and poem’s crisis of ultimately, because of the very nature of their own humanness, being unable to join the cicadas in their “fossil song” and seek escape from that humanness in the song. Such a feat is impossible, we know, and we hurt all the more because we know to transcend the human is not only beyond our grasp, we would forever lose something if we tried to move outside of ourselves. The evenness of the two quatrains helps the poem feel complete, as it were, like sturdy ballad stanzas that find closure (without necessarily neatness) from their sonic chiming. On the whole, it’s a great poem that captures and preserves a moment and a persona for us to enjoy seasons after.

Review by Michael Derrick Hudson
So many poems these days go on far too long. In “Amber,” Julie Wenglinski shows that much can be accomplished in a very small space. But it isn’t easy. First off, cicadas are hard to do—poets love cicadas, I love cicadas, but they’ve been done before, for centuries, and doing them again in verse is a daunting task. But here cicadas are handled deftly, like new, surprising, and in three lines. Then to be hauled up short with “if I were not so drunk.” It reminds me of James Wright at his best, lying in that hammock describing the world until his killer last line: “I have wasted my life.”

Drunkenness and a broken ankle—excuses excuses, I say! But poems making excuses are so rare in a world where—perhaps I speak for myself—making excuses is a daily occurrence. Rather than the poetic flapdoodle of “I am at one with nature,” here we have something real, something small yet I think fair to say something profound, and, last but not least, something pretty funny too. Excuses, self-pity, failures of the imagination can be “occasions for poetry” as much as anything else. And by being poems, they can rise above their limitations. A poem like Julie Wenglinski’s “Amber” just makes me want to say thank you.

Let me add that I admire the somewhat off-kilter title as well. Amber as a preserve of insects, I assume, with the “fossil” in line two reinforcing this. How nicely understated, how pleasantly atypical.

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