Review: Wanda Phipps’ Wake-up Calls: 66 Morning Poems


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 110 in 2005.

Review of Wanda Phipps,
Wake-Up Calls: 66 Morning Poems
(New York: Soft Skull, 2004)

It is no little thing to take a moribund poetic form and use it to clarify experience, and this is what Wanda Phipps does in her new book Wake-Up Calls.

Since the 1960s and the rise of writers workshops, the list poem, in which the poet provides an enumeration of, say, things to wear to the beach, has been popular. Yet in all these years little was produced in this style but idle, vapid nonsense. Suddenly, Phipps shows this seemingly innocuous form can be used for a caustic depiction of a modern mood.

Let me cite an example.

pluck the hairs on my tummy

arrange the books by category

call and say the work will be done

call and ask when the check is coming ...

stay focused stick to the point

whatever that could be

This poem, on the surface a bit ephemeral, is tucked into a book that offers a complex portrait of a woman juggling love, temp jobs, a half-stifled poetry career, and a social conscience. Phipps' lists conveys the cross-stitching of stress that swamps a conscientious person. As sociologist Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone, "The proportion of us [Americans] who say we "always feel rushed" jumped by more than half between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s." The poetic chronicles of Wake-Up show the blizzard of tasks and makeshifts one has to do to survive; always accompanied by doubts about whether one has done enough.

thoughts like heavy

objects juggling

The crowning irony is that Phipps is writing "morning poems," ones composed shortly after waking. It is not just that worries come upon you the moment you open your eyes, but, in Phipps' vision, you awake with an armful of logs, that is, work assignments that were given to you by your dreams.

The miracle of the book, though, is that this serious theme is captured so lyrically. Her lists are not set down with the heavy pliers of Whitman but with the delicate calipers of a Dickinson. To close, see how the weight of waking from unsettling dreams is rendered in this lovely passage:

... half in a waking state
half asleep
part in the moment before this
and part in the moment to come
flight takes me
or rather wakes me up
to where I can speak