Confronting the Darkness with David Wojahn

by Julie SwarstadInterrogation Palace by David Wohahn

David Wojahn is the author of eight books of poetry, among them World Tree (2011), Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982-2006 (2006), The Falling Hour (1997) and Icehouse Lights (1982). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts.  Interrogation Palace was a named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the O.B. Hardison Award.  An alumnus of the University of Arizona Creative Writing MFA Progra m, Wojahn is a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.

David Wojahn will read at the UA Poetry Center on Thursday, January 20 at 8 p.m. along with fellow UA alum Ann Cummins.

While David Wojahn is often noted as being "a poet of witness" to political injustice and other violence, in the poems collected into Interrogation Palace, he also acts as a witness to the struggles within individual lives.  His writing is filled with moments of personal struggle and pain: the loss of his wife Lynda, of unborn children, of friends, along with all the simple, small losses we go through each day.  Wojahn writes from a place of trouble and pain, but while his topics are weighty, he charges us to look them full in the face.  "How can you turn away?" he asks in one poem.

Whether it's personal or political struggle, it seems we can't turn away from what Wojahn wants us to see once we are pulled in by the beauty of his craft.  Wojahn's writing is astonishingly lyrical, especially since it is paired with subjects of such gravity.  Wojahn describes a young man on the street calming his girlfriend by touching her face with "circle, glyph / & labyrinth & proffered mercies tendered with / wingbeat, the stylus-tip of finger-pressure," while Blind Willie Johnson's music hurtles out of the solar system in the Voyager spacecraft as an "otherworldly wail ... Wherein a hymnbook cliché is transfigured / & the afterlife commences with glissando."  Wojahn's words tumble one over another, building a consuming and darkly beautiful vision of the world.

Moreover, Wojahn is a master of juxtaposition.  For example, the poem "Spirit Cabinet" begins with prison inmates allowed to see the world outside where women "lift their baby daughters up, allowing the men / to view them from their cells."  Then suddenly the poem turns to Shaker spirit cabinets, "contraptions half altar & half library carrel, in front of which believers / would entrance themselves, / awaiting orders from beyond."  But by the end of the poem the speaker tries desperately to find someone who has been lost by looking through things left behind, "a bedside table, lipstick / on a gin glass by her smokes."  The juxtaposition of these images allows the feeling of yearning for something out of reach to build up until we understand deeply the loss Wojahn is trying to describe.

"I want you to move closer," Wojahn writes.  With its heavy subjects, lyrical voice, and incredible juxtapositions, Interrogation Palace not only asks us to move closer, but pulls us into the consuming emotion and hunger for justice that permeates Wojahn's poetry.  Inside the complex layers of Wojahn's writing, an image emerges of a sinister world that cannot be ignored.  There's much of difficultly and despair in Interrogation Palace, but Wojahn makes a case for the need to face these emotions, and in the end we too are left with a need to confront the darkness, whether or not we can do anything to dispel it.

Created on: 
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Arizona Board of Regents