» Book Review
Review: Anything That Happens by Cheryl Wilder
Press 53, 2021
Paperback, 64 pages, $17.95
I feel tape break against my chest
But there is no finish line, no
Not knowing. When can I say,
It’s better now? It’s taken years
At the age of twenty, Cheryl Wilder “won the toss // of the keys / and rounded the corners // slid through the stop signs / then awoke in the car // the only one able / to choke silence into words.” She was physically whole. Four months later, her passenger woke up from a coma with a life-changing brain injury.
Starkness pervades Wilder’s collection Anything That Happens, a Tom Lombardo Poetry Selection by Press 53’s poetry series editor. Each succinct word clanks in the echo of a tragic mistake. Wilder doesn’t hide behind poetic devices that can make trauma beautiful or romantic or at least palatable. Instead, when writing about the accident and its aftermath, Wilder’s choice is often sparse language with anaphoric qualities—titles like “Slipped I,” “Slipped II,” “Slipped III”—running through the collection haunting our subconscious. The lines, “I am taken” are sporadically and strategically placed—taken aback, taken to jail, taken by surprise that anything has actually happened.
The emotion is mature, unguarded, and adept, as though Wilder has written these poems for decades, while she learned how to live as two people, “the before and the after; one I’ve already forgotten / the other I have not met.” She never pleas for our pity or understanding.
Wilder flexes her craft muscles in language addressing her childhood, marriage, and motherhood: “My father reared me / unbridled . . . I plant phlox, milkweed, coneflower, drag my suckling // childhood into the nearest cave / and lick the wounds of generations.” Later in “Family Tree Potluck,” she recalls, “my father doesn’t speak . . . Word shards in potato salad. I was reared on unspoken.”
Mighty line breaks and sentence structure create a duality that magnifies meaning and the weight of veracity: “I didn’t understand anything // had just happened.” Wilder uses the mid-sentence stanza break so the reader feels all of the ways this can be read. In another poem, Wilder writes, “I wanted to run. I had to get help.” The choice to place the truncated sentences on one line causes the reader to absorb the two robust and clashing emotions at once, thereby recreating the speaker’s overwhelming experience.
In Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying, Adrienne Rich writes, “Truthfulness anywhere means a heightened complexity.” The complexity and fecundity of poetry often comes from the unconscious struggling to fulfill its desire for truth. In the absence of truth, there is a distance between two people and only truth spans this struggle. This possibility between two people is the power we witness in this collection—Wilder before and after the accident, the poet and the reader, the reader before and after their own anything happens.
Wilder grapples with honesty throughout the pages. “It hurts. To stand outside // a wrecked car, to remain on that street / year after year, to not want the truth.” She duels with candor: “I try to switch places /…but I won the toss.” She discloses with vulnerability: “I wanted to escape / with the mountain man who told me / I, too, could live with a warrant.” Wilder’s direct and concise approach continues throughout this text, beginning another poem with “You cannot trust me.”
She does this work unflinchingly and establishes a path for us to follow. Anything That Happens is Cheryl Wilder’s salve to the willing reader’s wounded psyche.