Maya C. Popa’s Wound Is the Origin of Wonder is a radiant fabric of images and meditations, fragments of stories, bits of music that go together with a grace and lyricism that belie the ruptures and leaps between the lines. This is a haunted book. The poems of a wanderer and a wonderer. The first two sections apostrophize: the poems address some unknown or changing “you.” “Those evenings I was sure I’d die, / you were teaching me to live; I see that now.” There is a river of almost didactic pleasure flowing beneath the rhythms of these lines. And when I say fragments of stories I mean that the poet gives us just enough for the metonymies to work, and nonetheless it’s clear that, for her, feeling is the event. How to record it, acknowledge it, find an approximate shape for it in words—this is both the response to the wonder and the method for anthologizing it in the soul. Not so much the circumstances. “I swam in perpetual / end of spring knowing no summer could come of it …” By the end, by the book’s third and final section, that same inward-turned intimacy turns to face outward, to face directly—as directly as any sequence of poems I’ve seen—the chaos and trauma of life in pandemic-era New York City. So we get this, in the title poem, a vision of the metropolis at one of its worst moments:
A cross-breeze between this life
and the imagined one.
I am stuck in an almost life,
in an almost time. If I could say,
but I cannot, and so on. Sunlight
dizzies through the barren trees,
the skyline, a blue fog against
a yellow light, and on the highway
every Westward car blinds me.
Every surface reflects …
Or this, in “Duress,” a few lines that show Popa’s profound skill at limpid, elegant description melded with an almost philosophical wisdom, thought infused with feeling, feeling illuminated by thought:
An old habit by now this new life bleaching lemons,
careful to remove, first gloves, then mask,
careful not to rush the work
of being careful. For this, we live
a little uninjured through our hours. We live—
what greater mercy is admissible?
And then, in the noise of plague, a rejection of all that is not steadfast and quiet and resistant, a resistance itself to the immensity of nihilistic change, a longing for something that stays, that doesn’t keep dissolving in its own storm:
by night, the last of winter’s winds,
so you might believe the sirens
were not a single siren. Often, I’ve wanted,
not death, but disappearance,
evaporation, a bloodless
self-banishment. But the times call for patience,
not terror or time travel, not Eros
or negative capability.
If the steadfast is part and parcel with attention, here is a poetry that articulates—as all poetry must, finally, if it is to have any use, at least to this reader—a poetics of alertness. Alertness in the soul, the soul being our best metaphor for the dream-shapes of our being. And the soul, after all, was made for wonder.
JESSE NATHAN: What is the relationship between poetry and wonder? I mean in your poems, but then also more generally, in poetry as an art form.
MAYA C. POPA: St. Thomas Aquinas argued that poets and philosophers “are alike in being big with wonder.” Lucille Clifton aptly remarked that “poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” Part of what drives me to the page is the pleasure of capturing in language what seems bent on eluding it. When we experience wonder, we experience an instinctive recognition that what is being wondered at matters in some profound way, which has the power to drive us to the blank page, drive us to want to say something, to reply. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, I believe that we would fail to recognize this feeling, or that it would differ vastly from our understanding as it stands, were the eventual end of all feeling not guaranteed. Our mortality lies at the heart of our wonder and wondering. My collection speaks as much to the feelings of awe and renewal that wonder invites as to feelings of loss and grief. “Wonder,” after all, is thought to be a cognate for the old German wunde, or “wound.”
I do believe that wonder is an essential human emotion and a chief effect of poetry. Recollecting wonder on the page presents an inherent generative challenge for poets who must, in a sense, narrate the conditions for wonder (its circumstances) while accommodating wonder’s inherent disorientation, its sense of surpassing or breaching usual language and life. A poem that too conclusively tries to explain its wonder risks forfeiting the feeling. As Keats said, “We hate poetry that has too palpable of a design upon us.” Delivering wonder alive requires a very finely tuned balance between knowing and not knowing.
It may seem rather dramatic to suggest that our survival depends on our ability to wonder, but I suspect it is more right than not. A lens of wonder, that is, an approach to the world that acknowledges and values its preciousness, its onceness, and that seeks to safeguard its longevity and prevent its squandering is inherently valuable. As Thomas Ewens writes on education in the arts, “One should be attentive to situate one’s concerns in the experience of wonder which reveals itself as the heart of our living.” Wonder (noun) can make us wonder (verb), deepening our curiosity at the world that lies before us, and our relationship to our inner selves. Wonder deepens our cognitive compassion and our empathy for each other through the recognition of the unlikeliness, that wild chance of existence. And I think it is time we recognize poetry as one of the chief vehicles for its edifying purpose, which is what my PhD looked at, and what I continue to research and hope to generate wider interest in going forward.