Oak Ridge, TN: Iris Press, 2016. 88 pages. $15.00
Reading Everything in the Universe is like walking through a natural history museum exhibit curated by Andy Warhol. It’s full of recognizable forms in splashy, unexpected colors, but at the same time, Amy Wright shows us slivers of the lesser known, creatures magnified and rendered with such care that we have no choice but to take a good look. When I read this collection, I feel that sense of museum anxiety we’ve all experienced: do I push through and try to see everything in one go, even if it’s just an appreciative glance? Or do I pick a couple of rooms and linger there, staring down the beetles and carnivorous plants? This is vexing in the best way.
Wright has filled Everything in the Universe with sumptuous portraits. Many have the tactile joy and cheeky pleasure of a velvet Elvis. There are plenty of visual details, like the Citrus Longhorn’s “dorsum / a painter’s drop cloth / daubed with white speckles.” Sight is often wedded to touch and suggests a speaker who has spent enough time with these creatures to notice a velvet ant’s “velour duff,” or a buck moth’s “crushed / velvet scales perfect as a layer of baklava.” These are poems where nature writing never gets to take itself too seriously: a Dragonhunter dragonfly’s wings are compared to “hairpin lace panties” and a Titanus giganteus beetle’s wingspan “outmatches a wallet.”
The book isn’t just a hall of praise for all wings and stingers. Even eggs, symbols of new life and a fragile promise for the future, have a shadowy side, recalling Annie Dillard’s “Fecundity,” where she describes egg-laying as a “mindless stutter” and a testament to life’s transience: “Every glistening egg is a memento mori.” These prolific eggs in Wright’s poems are both mechanical and playful visions of perpetual creation. In “Excited,” “eggs never stop / bobbing forth, gumballs at a factory,” and worker bees are “throbbing engines whose tanks / will never run out” (47). Similarly, in “Insect Time,” a termite queen is “an insistent dispenser / whose stillness releases everything / that is not it in static white / procession, like bubbles / drawn around captioned thought” (73). We’re no longer in a museum or out in the field but in the frame of a cartoon, a space that lightens up this picture of nature’s relentless abundance. There’s a background hum of preparedness for the future, where each termite egg is a sealed-off idea waiting for the right time.
One of the best examples of nature’s cross-hatched qualities is “Bioluminescence.” The poem is an in-gathering of “we,” one of many points of view explored in the collection: “If only we lit up, illuminants / pre-equipped to tiki torch ourselves, / we might be fearless.” But this vision is soon complicated as we learn “even those beetles with internal / lights run opposite of autonomous / when their pulsing synchronizes, / frightening the young ones / with glimpses of the whole / forest, themselves scattered / at large within it” (30). A moment that seems like consensus is also an utter loss of self. It’s a reminder that light doesn’t always bring knowledge.
Everything in the Universe reveals Wright’s interest in the discoverer, not just the discovery. She celebrates technology that allows us new access to flora and fauna, as in “Scientists Film Inside A Flying Insect.” Wright also reminds us that discovery is a feat of human perception and patience. “Unflappable Cohabitants” presents off-duty naturalists who happen upon a new species in a parking lot, a testament to the well-trained eye at rest. There’s an implied caution that it’s easy, even for the most careful and knowledgeable, to miss what’s in front of us. In “Cobra Lilly,” addressed to the flower itself, Wright doesn’t dwell on the plant’s namesake but instead spotlights its discoverer, John Torrey, who names the plant after a fellow scientist; the name is only one part of the plant’s larger story. In the book, Wright calls many creatures by name, whether scientific, common, or figurative. She’s attuned to the music of a “Nanosella” or “Moon-headed True Bug.” Names are only one way, and a particularly human way, to pay tribute or stamp one’s legacy. By experimenting with point of view, Wright makes space for contrasting the human experience with what David Abram calls the “more-than-human world.” In “Old Glassy Speaks Her Peace,” one of Wright’s boldest choices for a speaker, a dragonfly assures us that they don’t bother with naming their own or other species. It’s a practice beneath the notice of these creatures “older than the devil” and “older than your oldest word” (74).
Wright’s poems affirm that our old ways of seeing have their limits and that we need new visions. The poems nudge us to know more about our neighbor creatures. In Wright’s universe, a yam weevil isn’t just invasive; it’s dapper, with its “blue-banded tunic / with tropical longitudinal / pinstripes.” One of the best examples is in “Cimex Cerebrum”: the speaker admits that “[a] bed bug brain wouldn’t seem like much / to look at,” but we learn that “under 1000X magnification, / samples bring into focus a reclining colossus, / gaze toward the firmament, face uplifted.” With a poet’s touch, the pest becomes majestic. Where we might least expect it, Wright finds a shape that inspires.
As with any museum exhibit that’s worth your time, these poems compel us to stick around, even if they make us uncomfortable. Rich with information like “every fifth living thing is a beetle,” the poems open up the world for us and also put us in our place. Everything in the Universe offers us a complex kind of hope. Nature, even and especially teeny tiny micro nature, is massive enough to crush us, powerful enough to humble us, nimble enough to outwit us, and dogged enough—we pray—to survive us.