Reading J. Michael Wahlgren’s first collection of poetry, Silent Actor, is a simultaneously frustrating and rewarding experience. On the one hand, Wahlgren is a writer whose work evokes a strong, unapologetic sense of his identity. On the other, we get the sense that his seemingly inexplicable obsession with certain single words and images frequently prevents the collection from developing beyond a scope that is in some ways limited by that very persistent sense of self. The final stanzas of the opening piece, “Problem Child,” set a somewhat petulant and disaffected tone:
I refused to pick up my toys, never mind
bring in the barrels, mow the lawn or
the hardest task of all: emptying the dishwasher.
I lash out.
not a child anymore, but a poet, an aspiring
artist on writer’s Aspirin.
We are speaking, then, with a young man whose past is still very much present — and whose present is, if the painkillers are any indication, drifting in a kind of numbed limbo.
From here, one might expect some elaboration upon Wahlgren’s hinted-at childhood that flows compellingly into what eventually becomes a vivid picture of who he has become. Instead, the next handful of poems, as the first piece accurately suggests, “lash out” in erratic, almost random directions: the author likening himself to numbers on a rating scale (”Prime”), natural and linguistic imagery too coy to evoke a clear focus (”Vulnerable” and “Games”), a teenage party game gone not so much wrong as exactly the way we expected it would (”Spin the Bottle”), and undergraduate ruminations on the futility of cram-sessions and dormitory life (”College”). It is not until “Candles” that we feel the collection has truly begun to state its intent:
No more foolish love, but serious
enervated love escalated, elevated to the top.
The candles in our eyes blew out,
after a shout, goodbye. We placed our hands in our pockets,
and eloped with stars in our pockets, our lips a red carpet
we each longed
to walk upon.
In this passage, the collection’s title begins, poignantly, to make sense. So, too, do we get a first glimpse at Wahlgren’s true strength: he has the ability to show love for what it is when the lights go out. In “Familiar,” he asserts,
…Difficult to say
now to what we can attribute
your looks, but without much clue,
you detect a way to see through
all the fame, in an attempt to
remember your God-given name.
This dark lady (or ladies, for we can never be sure) persists as a through-line of she for the remainder of the collection, providing a satisfying sense of love’s ultimately elusive nature. As it does for Wahlgren, it wears many faces down the years for all of us.
Previously mentioned in my introduction, Wahlgren’s peculiar single-word obsessions pop up early. Origami first manifests in “Spin the Bottle” (”locked lips, origami in flight”) and appears no fewer than five more times throughout the remainder of the pieces — sometimes parenthetical and always unexpected, although not necessarily illuminating. In folds that should be intricate, we find only muddled shadows. Jazz, on the other hand, is accorded a more active and effective role, as seen in “Unique Time”:
Waiting for your departure, we hold
hands for the first time—
(You must wonder)
how jazz is composed of laughter & pain,
without a refrain. In Monk’s time
we detest symbols,
straightforward piano keys of pain & mercy…
Tied up in this, too, is Wahlgren’s indelible sense of identity. This is music that he likes — no, loves — and, for a little while, he’ll see to it that we love it, too.
Amongst these ruminations on passion and music, we stumble across occasional moments of semi-transcendental glory. In “The Toy,” we find
The fireupon which revelation Wahlgren asks,
in her palms
Which of these
has your name
written on it?
As to whether it’s reassuring when he tells us “We all have one,” I’ll let the reader decide. From this point onward, Silent Actor’s poems possess a dreamlike, lyrical quality. Wahlgren shifts his focus from acts of love to thoughts of love, persistently haunted by the enigmatic, personified phrase of you know who. Whether this specter is a past lover or (from moment to moment) his present lover’s ex, that, too, we can only begin to guess.
Ultimately, Wahlgren ends on a note not dissimilar to the one on which he began. In “Rise Up,” the final poem, we find these by-now unexpectedly flippant lines:
I rise up. Catch me if you are kind. Salute your buttocks.
I give an appearance of conceit,
chutes or ladders nowhere to be found
I hide the clues next to my genitals. Perhaps you’ll seek.
What we’ll seek, perhaps, is not so much a clue as some sense of resolution. Still, for all its quirks and occasional inconsistencies, Silent Actor is both a compelling self-portrait and a thought-provoking treatise on the myriad permutations of human relationships.
Read an excerpt from Silent Actor
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