Before There Was Before by Wendy Drexler,
Iris Press, 2017, 87 pp., $15.81.
As I mature and traverse the challenges of adult life, I find myself reliving the times before. Before grief and loss, before responsibility or illness. I forget how time circles back on itself, how considerations of loss have always existed although I may not have noticed at the time. Wendy Drexler’s new collection, Before There Was Before has the talent of both comforting and worrying readers as they are reminded of what has passed through this world and of the continuing cycle of emotions and events that we all experience.
Through observations of nature, art, and personal moments, Drexler contemplates the depths of before. She opens her collection with a partial quote from astronomer Carl Sagan. The quote in full reads, “If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?” His words seemed to follow me throughout the collection as I considered the immediacy of life and what humanity has accomplished or what trouble it has taken part in creating
A science enthusiast, I was immediately drawn into Drexler’s work by Sagan’s quote and her introductory poem “Before There Was Before.” Throughout seven sections Drexler asks her audience to consider “Before there was before, there was still before,” a difficult concept no matter if one considers a spiritual or scientific beginning to the universe. Through science she shows us how “The Big Bang hurled all the star stuff / ever to be made … mewling seed stars, / all burning and burning / themselves out.” Drexler brings the world into perspective as she opens with this vast concept and then brings us to the intricacies of nature, observing the “apple asleep / inside the sleeping tree,” the churning ocean, the hunter and the hunted, and where we fall in the middle of all things.
Drexler’s observations of art and history are equally engaging as she describes various art forms such as paintings, sculptures, or a number of photographs, even a photo from Nazi Germany. Her poem “The Cave of Pech Merle” introduces readers to primitive artwork, a raw visual of cave paintings in what is now France. In the mix of animals and human figures she sees a dying man, “His mouth a grimace of falling ̶ / 25,000 years of falling – from the edge of where we begin.” She continues to observe different forms of artwork over time, and it is fascinating to see this example of early expression and a man caught in the cycle of history, a constant suffering that we cannot shake.
Mixed within Drexler’s beautiful imagery of nature and art are moments that I found made me uncomfortable, moments that unsettled me enough to look again and discover beauty and perhaps callousness side by side. The unpredictability of her images and narratives asked me to question how we live and how we care for these intricately assembled atoms that surround us, including ourselves. The poem “At the Rumfish Restaurant” does just this as the speaker describes eating in a restaurant bedside a fish tank. The speaker observes the fish that swim in an artificial landscape with, “no adrenal rush pumped through neurons / in the engineered hush.” Drexler writes:
I order grouper, watch a grouper
hover under a fake rock as I cut and chew,
gagging on grouper flesh, awash
in cognitive dissonance. Time to let
the tide propose something new.
The speaker’s observations made me pause and consider how people become what they are, with good or cruel intentions. I found I was examining myself more closely, wondering how people can hold certain beliefs but never act on them or search for ways to improve what they find distasteful. I began to wonder about history we have read and history we have lived and how one idea can circle back to us many times and never be dissolved or changed for the better. Drexler’s collection Before There Was Before collects memory, winds it into words and brings its readers back to before and still before where they will continue to recognize themselves in the narratives no matter the century. Whether it is a comment on Victorian jewelry, the death of a mother elephant, a bothersome insect, or the fragility of Earth’s very existence, Drexler’s words ask us to examine these atoms and to treasure them for however long we may have.