In his essay Between Things: On the Ode, poet Stanley Plumley argues, “whatever else an ode is, whether it praises or muses, we think of it as a lyric with size – whether in actual length or imaginative displacement,” and while reading Tyler Truman Julian’s Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer), with its central metaphors and unconventional tumble from one poem to the next, I kept coming back to that idea: a lyric with size. As Linda Gregerson also notes, the “enduring feature” of the ode is its occasion, not its form. That isn’t to say this collection sacrifices form for the sake of occasion. Julian’s poems offer stunning symmetry, imaginative syntax, and a sharp intelligence guiding the expansion and contraction of language. Pragmatism struggles with sentimentality, but not against it. Identity is unabridged, yet divided at its core when both speaker and poet assert their desire on the page.
“West is just west / and it never runs out,” Sarah Suzor writes in The Principle Agent. It a quote Julian selected to preface the collection and its idea of immensity is felt throughout the collection. “West” is also the wellspring of frontier mythology in the United States, a demonstration of Manifest Destiny: the constant expansion of democracy and capitalism across the North American continent. It lies at the root of our sense of “American identity,” a longing for expansion in a world that, with its advanced technology and mobility, feels like it’s getting smaller. This is where we find the speaker in the collection’s opening poem.
has a little more
than half a million people;
its around 563, 626,
it’s just easier to say half a million.
All of us
are spread out
across 97, 914 square miles,
about 5 people per mile,
but your closest neighbor might really be 15 miles away.
Immediately we are told that limitations have been imposed. Wyoming’s physical expansion has been curtailed and the people who make up its population, much like cattle on a ranch, have been individually accounted for, but are also reduced to an idea, a single herd of “half a million.” We have the capacity to recognize them as individuals – the speaker wants us to know this – but not the desire to carry the distinction forward. A choice has been made to round down, to reduce the number, to homogenize the group. It’s a choice that sets up one of the abiding juxtapositions in the collection: the heart’s desire to connect on an intimate level with one person, occasionally manifesting as the desire to connect directly with the reader, and the psyche’s inclination to distance itself from the herd and sublimate completely with the land.
From this point forward we come to understand that capacity is easy; desire is more difficult. For the human beast, desires are myriad. Decisions require us to harness our desires, often suppressing or outright rejecting desire and diminishing our willingness to see the act through. It’s why someone dreams of moving beyond the borders of where they are, but is restrained by the pangs of imminent loss. In another poem Julien writes, “There is a fear, / in the isolation of a state, / where all know all, but hardly see one another, / that you will be forgotten.” In Julian’s Wyoming the simple act of seeing someone becomes an occasion worthy of a story to be told among friends who share gossip, activity reports, and conspiracy theories. To be unseen or unmentioned risks being unmade.
In Julian’s poem Wyoming, the speaker’s spinning presence forces the stars to “burn a little brighter / just for you” while “flowers wilt in the artificial light,” but the euphoric sense of intensity he finds in the landscape comes with a steep price: the pain of isolation, leaving him to hope to be born again not as a person, but as a thing: “as highways, as prayer cards, as beer, as memory / as all things that connect me to you, / just you.” Of course the stars don’t burn brighter for one person over another, but it certainly feels true and in a sparsely-populated landscape, it’s easy to feel umbilical connections to the land and sky – to see the stars differently and to believe they see you. To be seen is to be remembered and like the star in the sky, the speaker burns brighter in the line of sight: he also burns brighter “just for you,” suspending for a brief moment feelings of isolation.
Of all the poems in the collection, Haying is one I recommend spending time with. It’s the first poem in the collection where I felt the poet, as opposed to the speaker, step in and shift our perspective.
It’s all about patterns, geometry,
Spilled diesel around the pump.
Beautiful, tragic, money.
“But the hay’s good this year.”
It’s about screwing up, missing corners,
being too late,
“I lost the pattern.”
This poem introduces a new authoritative voice to the collection, one that threads in and out of subsequent poems. When we refer to patterns and geometry, we know we’re speaking directly about landscape and agriculture, weather and human nature, but, in this poem, we’re also talking about language and desire. At this point I returned to Plumley’s assertion: a lyric with size. I also thought of G.M. Hopkins and John Keats and their ability to “build vertically” within a poem. Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer) is also a collection of patterns, voices in poems that edit themselves as they move down the page; and geometry, four distinct sections arranged within the collection, calling and answering to each other. Occasionally a voice reaches out in direct address to the reader, a surplus of emotion that registers outside the defined lines of the poem echoing the “[s]pilled diesel around the pump.” When Julian writes, “I want you to understand / where the others don’t get it,” we sense that both speaker and poet are addressing the you of the poem as well you, the reader.
I still talk poetry to people who don’t get it,
(or they do)
but that’s haying
(or is it).
In his introduction to Ritsos in Parenthesis, Edmund Keeley writes, “[t]he two signs of the parenthesis are like cupped hands facing each other across distance, hands that are straining to come together, to achieve a meeting that would serve to reaffirm human contact between isolated presences.” Again, we return to the struggle between desire (to come together) and capacity (the inability to do it). Cupped hands will never be parallel lines laying side by side. It’s a structure that seeks closure, but by its own nature rejects it. Parentheses are meant to be filled with ideas or instances of emotion that don’t quite fit the line or would otherwise disrupt the thought. There is no syntax more capable of expressing the pain of separation than a line break followed by parentheses. It’s an idea beautifully expressed in Julian’s The Next Question:
The next question
to ask (to answer), to be forgot:
Here the first parenthesis lets us know the answer will not lie parallel with the question – that it might bring clarity, but not resolution. In all likelihood, the answer will be perpendicular to the question: the lines of the question and the lines of the answer crossing each other at a fixed point in time and space, but moving in two directions like water from the continental divide. The second parenthesis let us know we have arrived a thing forgotten or erased from our line of sight, perhaps something that was born unutterable. It lies before us confined within the parenthesis like a state within its borders or like a dissolving face cupped between the hands that hold it. It is something we can sense, but can not know it well enough to commit it to memory or call it to the line.
Julian writes, as the final couplet of the collections first poem, “One might ask, naturally: / Who does leave this place and why?” It’s a recurring question and one the poet never answers, and yet there is great satisfaction to be found for both the poet and the reader because finding the answer isn’t the objective. It is enough that the question is the occasion around which the poems are built. It is the question that leads us to answers that don’t belong to it. That is the beauty of the ode. It takes us in unexpected directions, forces us to move in gigantic leaps, and, like Wyoming: The Next Question to Ask (to Answer), it always brings us home.
A debt of gratitude is owed to the following essays from Radiant Lyre. I do not have the words to express how highly I recommend this book for any writer who wants to learn more about the lyric.
Stanley Plumley, “Between Things: On the Ode,” Radiant Lyre, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend (Saint Paul, Graywolf Press, 2007)
“Ode and Empire,” Linda Gregerson. Radiant Lyre, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend (Saint Paul, Graywolf Press, 2007)
Tyler Truman Julian is a native of Wyoming, residing in New Mexico, where he is a graduate student, studying creative writing in New Mexico State University’s MFA Program. Though he currently lives in the desert, his work tends to focus on the areas of boom and bust, cold, isolation, and hard living that make up the American West.
Julia Beach Anderson received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a Master of Fine Arts from the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. She lives and works in New England as a graphic designer and content writer. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Occulum, Barren Magazine, and Flypaper Lit.