By Bonnie Proudfoot
Have you been out walking, biking, or jogging in the Near East Side of Athens and suddenly come upon a short poem chalked onto the sidewalk — lines that seem to have materialized, created meaning, then started dissolving, as if the poem’s intention was just as important as its ephemerality, its impermanence? You’ve discovered the work of Athens’ current poet laureate, Wendy McVicker, whose endeavor for the past year and a half has been to create opportunities for Athenians to experience poetry in as many ways as poetry can be experienced.
Yet, despite all McVicker has done to impact the arts and culture and creative life of Athens, Athenians may not have had a chance to experience McVicker’s own poetry in depth unless they subscribe to literary journals. This is a problem easily solved: this June, McVicker’s fourth book “Zero, a Door” was released by the Orchard Street Press of Gates Mills, Ohio. Although it has only been out for a few weeks, it has been praised by poets from Ohio and beyond. Cincinnati Poet Laureate Emeritus Pauletta Hansel says that “Zero, a Door is an interweaving of all that the poet encounters as she walks through that door ‘and into the world.’”
Though it is hard to say why, “Zero, a Door” feels to me like an Athens, Ohio, book. It begins with “Runaway,” a poem where the speaker heads for the woods through tall grass, snakes, then finds her voice in a stand of silent trees. Much like the city of Athens, a river runs through the book, showing up literally and metaphorically throughout various poems. This is not to say that the poems focus on only landscape. Poem titles hint at subjects as diverse as the loss of innocence poem “At 13” and the delightfully contradictory “Bad Buddhist” as well as the heartbreaking “Rivers carry things away.”
Some readers of poetry enjoy reading a single poem or two at a time. I suggest that Zero, a Door be read as a whole. The poems build in pattern and tone; some poems cast a clear eye on ways we humans seem to have failed each other, poems like “Because the girl” or “safe as houses,” a poem that moves into unsettling ways houses may not feel safe. Other poems are more contemplative, inhabit the realm of ideas, begin with specifics and then question their own assumptions, hint that certainty is fleeting, that certainty is possibly only a matter of where we chose to cast our gaze.
Without acting (I hope) as too much of a spoiler, one poem in the collection seems to bring into focus many of the questions about life that McVicker wrangles with in this book. Placed toward the end of the book, the poem “What Matters” seems to stand in for the overall project of the book in the way that it embraces questions, examines its own impulses, and seems to feel its way toward an open-ended and generous resolution, one that accepts and lives with gratitude despite impermanence. It begins,
What does it matter
that we are forgotten?
We are making
our quiet marks –
They will be erased. . .
“We have lived,” it continues. “”We have sung ourselves to sleep / We have sung ourselves awake. . ./ It is enough/ It is what matters.” Ohio University composition student Matt Dowler selected this evocative poem to interpret in a composition for seven pianos as a recital piece on behalf of the Music Teachers National Association. The performance (on the Department of Music FB page) features the piano score and a voiceover reading of the poem by McVicker.
You might think that the title poem would be the first poem in the collection. Instead, McVicker has placed this poem last. To me, “Z is for Zero” serves as an invocation of the poetic imagination. Coming at the end of the book, it seems to offer readers a spark that may ignite their own poetic curiosity.
Zero, a door we walk through into clarity.
A round door, a cave opening, darkness.
Why do we picture nothingness as dark?
It is just as likely to be full of light.
“Zero, a Door” is a lyrical and polished book, the work of an author who is self-aware and confident in her approach to craft.
Usually when a poet releases a book, a public reading follows. I have heard that one is in the works, possibly in September, and likely at Stuart’s Opera House. This will give the community an opportunity to hear the poet’s voice, to allow these poems to echo in real time. Meanwhile, perhaps find some “Silver Linings” on the Athens Poet Laureate facebook page, or stream interviews in “River of Words” on the listen tab of WOUB.org. Also, pick up a copy of “Zero, a Door” at Little Professor in Athens, request it from the Athens County Public library, or order it online from The Orchard Street Press.
Dive in. Taste it in small sips, or savor the entire book. Then, look out at your surroundings and follow your gaze from the ordinary into the extraordinary. It might be as simple as the way words in chalk dissolve with the steps of passers-by, particles sticking to skateboard wheels or flip flops. Never mind if that brings more questions, or even if, sometimes, the answers contain contradictions. Start with “Zero,” open that door, see what beckons.
Athens resident Bonnie Proudfoot has had fiction and poetry published in multiple literary journals. Her first novel, “Goshen Road,” (Ohio University’s Swallow Press, 2020) was a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads selection for 2020 and was long-listed for the 2021 PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction.