Review of Westerly by Will Schutt

Will Schutt. Westerly. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. 80 pp. $18.00, paper.

This year’s Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize went to Will Schutt for Westerly, a collection of poems that meditate on travel and mortality, on being led and pushed to and from the West. Schutt engages memory and its fallibilities, the elegy and possibilities that must come with it. The speaker takes the reader on travels from a small town in Rhode Island, to Wisconsin, to the West Coast, and to Italy.

He sets the tone of the collection with the opening poem, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” balancing the intellectual with pop culture, giving weight to the historical patter of Billy Joel as he invokes de Sade, foreshadowing loss amidst a pleasant summer scene. In “Rock Maple, White Pine,” he writes “Part of you is thinking this early / why ravel means entangle and disentangle // at the same time, as if the interrogative / mood were the only concept // hanging about to hold the hour still.” This is what Schutt gives us throughout the collection—poems that entangle and disentangle at the same time. He teasingly complicates and simplifies in the same sentences, kindly asking the reader to consider the speaker’s observations and declarations. In the unrhymed sonnet “A Kind of Poetry,” Schutt writes “Sometimes you turn to poetry / the way you turn to another country. / […] / You notice things you wouldn’t / otherwise. You notice things.” He then does exactly that in the elegantly translated mid-century Italian poems that make up the second section.

In “Crenellated Playroom,” his most heartbreaking poem and the longest in the collection, Schutt elegizes a dear friend who died young, whose “midlife crisis / peaked in prep school.” She is the embodiment of youth and maturity, living and elegy. In the poem, as her health fails, Laura’s personality is vibrant; she is those contradictions embodied. As Schutt writes, “—At her sickest, whittled down to brutal / humor only have-nots possess, grand dame / receiving guests in bed, Laura would say, / ‘That coat’s not really your color’ or ‘I hope / she’s not at my funeral.’” She is the juxtaposition of the serious intellectual and the democratic humorist.

In Westerly, Schutt takes up estrangement. It finds its way into poems about family and fatherhood, about travel, growing up, and loss. As Carl Phillips writes in his introduction to the collection, “we become more estranged, it seems, not only from others but from ourselves—who we were, who we remember being, or what we think we remember, which is different from knowing.” In the ekphrastic poem, “Postcard of Peter Lorre Embracing Lotte Lenya, 1929,” Schutt sees in the image his “young father…[laying] the groundwork for divorce.”

Schutt is at his best when his poems are at once intimate and confessional, traditional and restrained. His work is personal and public, domestic and international. Even in death, the poems are full of life. He examines, then peels layers back slowly, revealing—in stunning and accessible language—complicated and difficult truths.

Katharine Johnsen studies and teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where she is the recipient of the Bernice Kert Fellowship and works on the editorial staff of Ecotone. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Birmingham Poetry Review, 32 Poems, cellpoems, Stirring: A Literary Collection, and elsewhere. She earned her B.A. from Emory University.