God of Nothingness, by Mark Wunderlich
Graywolf Press, 2021

The experience of reading Mark Wunderlich’s fourth poetry book, God of Nothingness, mirrors the page-turning necessity and immediacy of a can’t-put-it-down novel: We must learn what happens next.

This is due in large part to Wunderlich’s use of repetition, which is first hinted at in the opening poem, the eponymous “Wunderlich,” a list poem that doubles as a definition poem and ticks off a fascinating résumé of a life based on the things “Wunderlich” means, and what it might mean: “The name means ‘strange things happened to him.’/It means ‘he can be disputatious.’/(…) It can mean he has a gnome tattooed/near the hair underneath his arm./It means ‘he loves Christmas like a simpleton.’/It means ‘makes sushi out of SPAM.’/The name means ‘curious,’ as in ‘he bought a haunted house.’” Due to the form and the repetition, readers can easily imagine unseen bullets marking each meaning and anticipate upcoming themes: Surely, stories of strange things are to follow, no? Surely, the gnome is going to reappear? The haunted house? The themes and imagery Wunderlich spotlights in poem No. 1 foreshadow the subjects and imagery to come.

One such consistent theme in Wunderlich’s collection is death. He recollects a collection of loss, giving equal weight to his father, his grandfather’s hired hand, his nephew, a cat, a show lamb. He uses first-person in a direct manner—so the reader feels they are in on a secret—but without sentimentality. Consider the story of John DiCarolo, his nephew, in a poem that starts 

John’s ashes flew from Stockholm in a box
Anders stowed in the overhead compartment,

brought it across the ocean to Provincetown,
and when he put it down on the little side table

it’s as if a cloud formed and we all went solemn
as an absence filled the house.

Wunderlich weaves his grief into matter-of-fact language that carries throughout the 83-page book, using forms including prose, narrative, and ekphrastic poetry to announce: I have a story to share.

In the collection’s first section, Wunderlich introduces readers to the people and places that serve as his roots: an old family farm and its ghosts. Each word is simultaneously cautious and sure-footed, as though he regards his history and current position in life—firmly set in concrete—with the tenderness used for a hatchling or infant. He asks, “How long will I keep telling stories like this—/dirt floors and traplines and a shack abandoned in a swamp?” Wunderlich is duty-bound to share these stories, to remember the characters from his childhood. Consider his grandfather, a hunchback eager to make his grandson laugh—“look at him pretend to trip,/teeth in pocket, ring the doorbell three times/and make the children clap!”—perhaps to make up for the misery of his own childhood. “Grandpa Adolf/would unbuckle his wooden leg/and leave it napping on a chair,/then beat his little hunchback with a cane—/Little Hunchback, Little Hunchback,/never you be late again!”

In one of the collection’s stand-out poems, Wunderlich recollects someone called simply “the old woman.” The prose piece paints a portrait of a careful, feisty woman who fed water snakes and taught Wunderlich to shoot at “the dump so we could practice on unlucky rats.” The poem is full of so many concrete details (a saved severed braid, peppermint schnapps as medicine for kids) that the ending wallop packs extra punch: 

“And when she forgot she forgot all of it—forgetting to eat, forgetting to dress, forgetting even where she was, waking up wet and cold on the floor. Me? She forgot me too. Wind blew through the pines out on the sand prairie, and that was what she became. She forgot me and I was forgettable. Once forgotten I could walk away and be free.”

That freedom, however, is tenuous at best. Wunderlich tries to sneer at a brother who spent “fall and winter doing as he pleased,/dancing high and costumed in the desert dust, Burning Man’s skeleton ablaze.” Meanwhile, the poet is “the one who stayed, did as he was told, remained/behind with his straight A’s, Goody-Two-Shoes, Mr. Butter-Wouldn’t Melt.” He coats that bottled resentment all over the poem, and in the end, what’s it worth? Because in the end, he still envies the titular prodigal son: “Here I stand/in the background, frying the fatted calf in grease,/while he weeps for what was lost—for himself—/and with evident enviable release.”

Later, after Wunderlich has moved on and is, by most definitions of the word, free, there are wispy but permanent threads anchoring him to home. For one, as an adult, he moves into a haunted house that provides a vague echo of the apparitions who shared their stories and raised him. “I spend my days inside these rubble stone walls/cooking small meals and stoking logs into a smoking stove/while around me history stills to pictures in a frame—/the same clouded view for Old Dutch Mary/waiting at the window once again.”

He sings the praises of being childfree—“I am free from longing to be free, I do as I please,/my money is my own, all the mistakes I make are only my mistakes.”—but still looks over his shoulder at ghosts. This time, they are the ghosts of what could-have-been:

He sings the praises of being childfree—“I am free from longing to be free, I do as I please,/my money is my own, all the mistakes I make are only my mistakes.”—but still looks over his shoulder at ghosts. This time, they are the ghosts of what could-have-been:

The son I’ll never have is crossing the lawn. He is lying on an imaginary bed,

the coverlet pulled up over his knees—knees I don’t dare describe.

I recoil from imagining him as meat and bone, as a mind

and hands stroking the fur of his pet rabbit.

I never gave him the accordion I used to play, my mother and I 

in duets, “The Minnesota Polka,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,”

never watched him push noodles into his mouth with fingers

while I wished he would use the spoon shiny with disuse.”

In addition to a meditation on familial ghosts and haunting memories, God of Nothingless is an atlas, a journaled and narrative map of the poet’s life. His childhood experiences on that Midwestern farm are cold and drab, and he exchanges that frigidity for one that is anything but drab, in a series called “Five Cold Stories,” which take place in Reykjavik, Iceland; Haukijärvi, Sweden; and Hämeenkyrö, Finland. In a setting known for its crisp white snow and swirled Aurora, Wunderlich finds even more color—finds life—in lovers, in reindeer, in sleeping “on boughs of spruce, our breath crusting the canvas of the tent,” in morsels of pike, and in saunas, where “The heat is personal and draws you into yourself, hands over your face to keep from burning.” Even here, in a world so different from the Midwest that it may as well be another planet, Wunderluch’s mind turns to home, to those who care for and raise us: “The stove is our mother pushing her heat onto us, pouring it onto us, dizzying and irradiating the pink spiders of our lungs, searing the bottoms of our feet, (…) the mouth of winter is the hole we climb into,” an image of returning to the warmth of the womb. “The body seeks the extreme. Cool me and heat me, cool and heat, Mother remake me, here in the snow.”

In the end, Wunderlich again directly references the “autobiographical impulse,” in the collection’s antepenultimate poem, a biographical catalogue that mirrors the collection’s opening poem. This need to codify and collect the past is the reason beneath the stories he shares, and it peeks its head into the spotlight halfway through the first section: “How long will I keep telling stories just like this—/dirt floors and traplines and a shack abandoned in the swamp?”

Wunderlich punctuates his book by taking us back to the beginning, to the house where his ancestors no longer live: “In the Polaroid in a drawer of the house/the other relatives picked over, I’m the blur in the background,/mop of silvery hair. The rasp of the ashpan when you empty the stove/is a bit like my voice, stuck in the chimney like a nest.”

Eventually, Wunderlich becomes the ghost, haunting his former home, gifting its appliances with his words and the timber of his voice.

Jaclyn Youhana Garver