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October 26, 2004

Back with Black (and Wunderlich)

by Ron Hogan

It was just a little over a month ago the last time I heard Sophie Cabot Black read, but when I heard she would be appearing with fellow Graywolf poet Mark Wunderlich, I told the Significant Other to meet me at KGB--mind you, I thought the reading began a half hour earlier than it did, but being the first ones in worked to our advantage once the room filled up. We had a chance to say hello to Sophie just before the show got started--she'd been Halloween shopping just around the corner and showed us some fabulous Day of the Dead skull necklaces and rattles she'd picked up. Then it was up to the podium to read from The Descent, where I was once again stunned by the power of her imagery. "You were spooky up there," her friend, who'd been sitting next to me as Sophie read, said when she came back to our table. And not just because of the underlighting effect created by the reading lamp on the podium--Sophie's style is to simply move from one poem to the next, with only the barest of introductory remarks at the very beginning, and the accumulative effect is, in fact, powerfully unnerving (in the best way).

During the intermission, I discovered that her friend was Lucie Brock-Broido, and that she had taught Mark Wunderlich--which makes this conversation between Wunderlich and Stanley Kunitz a little more poignant, since Brock-Broido was Kunitz's student. I let her borrow my copy of Wunderlich's latest collection, Voluntary Servitude, and she followed along as he read. After recalling the "happy times" he had spent in a writing group with Sophie years ago, he told us how the title of his collection came from an essay by the French philosopher Etienne de La Bo├ętie. And then the poems--again, I tended to be struck by the imagery, especially in scenes which were rooted in his Wisconsin farm childhood--passages about hunting deer, breaking geldings, milking goats--but there's also a powerful erotic current that flows through his verse, and a playfulness with form: he described one poem as "a confused villanelle," and revealed how another had started out inspired by Rilke but quickly went off in its own direction. The Significant Other was equally moved, and after the reading was over we had both poets sign our books.

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