A CLOSER LOOK: Connie Wanek


Long were the nights she spent in labor
wrestling babies from the Creator.

Connie Wanek is a poet sprung from the nation’s heartland—Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Minnesota—a land she so covets that its images urge themselves into her poems, poems in which deceptively plain talk speaks of serious matters, the human condition and its predicament. And yet her poems fairly burst with imagination, humor, and irreverence in abundance. Hers is a voice we trust in a down-home kind of way, her home being Minnesota, where she labors to birth these compelling poems.


Wanek is the author of several collections, most recently, Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). In the next few weeks, Candlewick Books will publish Marshmallow Clouds, a book of poems for young readers, a collaboration with Ted Kooser in which each has written half the poems. [Disclosure: your editor has ordered a copy for his grandsons.] Previous collections include On Speaking Terms (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), Hartley Field (Holy Cow! Press, 2002), and Bonfire (New Rivers Press, 1997), winner of the New Voices Award. Her honors include the Willow Poetry Prize, the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize, and a Witter Bynner Fellowship at the Library of Congress. She coedited, with Joyce Sutphen and Thom Tammaro, the anthology To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present (New Rivers Press, 2007). Praising Hartley Field, poet David Orr observed, “Like Szymborska, Wanek likes to end poems with poised yet cutting observations or intimations of dread that can turn ordinary activities into existential dilemmas.”

Ten Commandments

After centuries of negotiation
in the manner of writer and editor,

God himself chose the stone and font.


“How many copies?” asked Mrs. God, patiently.

“I was thinking a thousand?” God answered,

sharpening his chisels. “At least for

the first edition. Some folks may need to share.”


Mrs. God left him to it. The sound

of iron against rock grew faint.

She was shaping something softer,
a long, serious period of rain

across the outback, where such a gift

meant tears of gratitude.


Meanwhile God began to tire.
The commandments, formed letter by letter,

seemed wordy, even after he’d eliminated

most of the footnotes. His palms had blistered

without the gloves he always misplaced.

“Thou shalt not lie,” he mused. “Or is it
lay?” She would know, if only she were here.


(first appeared in The Writer’s Almanac)


For a Change

Earth had become a job that required

constant customer support.
Humans didn’t seem to understand

the basics of their service.

Mrs. God suggested a standard message

when people first connected:
The Kingdom of God is within you.

“Honestly I think it gives them

a sense of agency,” she said.


But God thought the problem stemmed
from a confusing owners’ manual.
“Some of these translations are inscrutable,”

he said, paging through the dense instructions.

“What about a series of drawings,

where steps would be illustrated with a

puzzled little angel, sort of like IKEA?

And of course an extensive
FAQ on the website.”


“It’s worth a try,” said Mrs. God. “The most

important thing is that people know
they’re getting accurate information.”
“For a change,” said God.


(first appeared in The Writer’s Almanac)


Toll Road

You will pay and pay and pay, said all the signs.

It’s not a road for the poor, or patient.
Time is money is distance, the triangle flattened

to a long straight line across the rolling land

from star to star.

We don’t talk about free days.

What free days? Since Eden it’s been

handfuls of change. Once, when I was a young girl

walking off my nerves, a car of boys
slowed and rolled down their windows
to throw a clatter of pennies at me.

That’s how rich they felt, I guess,

how generous.

I didn’t marry money.

But we’ve saved enough to leave some

along the way, at the window where a man

shows us his empty palm.
A wooden arm lifts, then, and on we go.


(first appeared in Freshwater Review)


Jump Rope

There is menace
in its relentless course, round and round,

describing an ellipsoid,
an airy prison in which a young girl
is incarcerated.
Whom will she marry? Whom will she love?

The rope, like a snake,
has the gift of divination,
yet reveals only a hint, a single initial.
But what if she never misses?
Is competence its own reward?
Will the rope never strike her ankle,
love’s bite? The enders turn and turn,

two-handed as their arms tire,
their enchantments exhausted.
It hurts to watch her now,
flushed and scowling,
her will stronger than her limbs,
her braids lashing her shoulders
with each small success.


(from Hartley Field, Holy Cow! Press, 2002)


Long Nights

It’s good to have poems that begin with tea

and end with God.

—Robert Bly


A cup forgotten on the windowsill,
half full of cold tea, half of moonlight.

The rocking chair sits alone now,
its back erect and its seat ample.
There I nursed the first baby, and read
the Alexandria Quartet, wherein
a child was a further romance.
I still feel her in my arms, limp with sleep,

and see her heartbeat in her fontanel.

Whenever I tried to lay her in her crib
her eyes flew open. Let her cry, they said.

But I never let her cry.
My mother carried six of us,
one after the other, on her hip,
as we descended from her embrace
to our stations on the earth. She says
to this day her left hip is higher,
her left arm brutally strong,
her right infinitely dexterous.
Long were the nights she spent in labor

wrestling babies from the Creator.


(from Hartley Field, Holy Cow! Press, 2002)



We used to play, long before we bought real houses.

A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.
The money was pink, blue, gold as well as green,

and we could own a whole railroad

or speculate in hotels where others dreaded staying:

the cost was extortionary.


At last one person would own everything,

every teaspoon in the dining car, every spike

driven into the planks by immigrants,
every crooked mayor.

But then, with only the clothes on our backs,

we ran outside, laughing.


(from On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, 2010)



First you’ll come to the end of the freeway.
Then it’s not so much north on Woodland Avenue
as it is a feeling that the pines are taller and weigh more,

and the road, you’ll notice,
is older with faded lines and unmown shoulders.
You’ll see a cemetery on your right
and another later on your left.
Sobered, drive on.

Drive on for miles
if the fields are full of hawkweed and daisies.

Sometimes a spotted horse
will gallop along the fence. Sometimes you’ll see

a hawk circling, sometimes a vulture.
You’ll cross the river many times
over smaller and smaller bridges.

You’ll know when you’re close;
people always say they have a sudden sensation

that the horizon, which was always far ahead,

is now directly behind them.
At this point you may want to park
and proceed on foot, or even
on your knees.


(from On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, 2010)


None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin.



To write as a field grows pumpkins,
to scribble page after page with an orange crayon,

to lose teeth and still smile,
to survive a frost that blackened acres,
to wake after surgery.

To live without rotting from within,

to ignore imperfections of the skin,

to be heavy, and still be chosen,
to please a strict vegetarian,

to end the day full of light.


(from Rival Gardens, University of Nebraska Press, 2016)



Six Months After My Father’s Death

It was Mother on the phone, and she sounded

well, finally out of his misery.


Her breathing was good, her lungs

clear, after the near suffocation


of his last year. He hadn’t meant to hurt her.

Drowning people will do anything for air.


“Do you still hear his whistle?” I asked,

and she said, “Sometimes it


wakes me in the morning, yes.”
It had hung, silver and serene, near his hand


and in her last dream.
Or was it the mockingbird she heard


that took up the summons he had mastered?

What with her nearly deaf and him so feeble


some last calls surely went unanswered

and some answers came faithfully


in response to nothing
more than a gray bird perched


at the top of a lemon tree,

pleading for help.


(from On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, 2010)



After you have read all you possibly can

there may be a few lines left.
Please don’t feel obligated!
They’re cold by now

as conclusions often are.
Hard, too, like beef fat that
whitens at the foot of a roast.
Some can make another meal of leftovers

and often read past midnight
drinking the last wine
directly out of the bottle.
“Happily ever after” is for those
who never seem to tire of sweets.
And you: you’re already going home,

leaving me with this mess,
wrinkled napkins, bones and crusts
and onions teased out of the salad.
If only I had a pig to fatten
on last words.


(from On Speaking Terms, Copper Canyon Press, 2010)



Garter Snake

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die."

—Genesis 3.4


If you were whole and willing
I’d invite you under my skirt
to hold up my stocking,
little snake, silk-muscled and elastic.


But you’re timid, and you’ve lost

your tail tip: a mishap
in a cool August foreshadow,
or unluck among hawks.


I’m glad you aren’t your brother.

I found him, flat and empty,

crossing the road, pressed smooth

by one tread after another.


Charming! Your serious eyes
and quick pink tongue, your

swimmy gestures toward the garden,

your liquefaction.


I’m right behind you, darling,

though we’re both cautious
and curious. All these years on earth,

yet I still have a thousand questions.


(from Rival Gardens, University of Nebraska Press, 2016)



Some men don’t hate marriage,
or slavery for that matter.
Nor can they ever own enough land.


When I was a girl back on the farm
I surprised a wild tomcat in the hayloft.

He was eating a kitten,


its eyes still shut tight
like apple buds. The shutter clicked
as he looked at me, his expression fixed.


I still think he knew what he was doing,

though not why,
which makes him almost human,


or makes us almost feline.
I could hear the other kittens

mewing softly


somewhere in the hay,

deep in the hidden nest

established by our cat


when she felt them coming.
How many did he take, I wondered,

and how can I punish him?


(from Rival Gardens, University of Nebraska Press, 2016)


Last Star

Open the coming day to the table of contents.

The first chapter, “The Last Star,” begins

“All the fawn’s spots faded, except one.”


It seemed the robin would never stop singing,

if singing’s the word. More like
the scribbles of a child imitating cursive,

certain everything means something.


Does a mare remember being a foal
as she cares for her own, her first?
“Suddenly I found my neck
was long enough, and I could graze.”

Afterwards she forgot the taste of milk, but she

kept the white star shining on her forehead.


Perhaps this day holds such promise
you turn first to the last page, to be sure.

The one you love most must still be alive,

or you’ll go no further.


(from Rival Gardens, University of Nebraska Press, 2016)


I Heard You Come In

something like three
and I knew what it meant:
your vigil was over.
You’d stayed with your father day and night
in case he woke,
in case he came once more
to the surface, to the interface between worlds,

the hospital room with its enormous window;

came like a whale to break the glass sea
and take a deep breath,
and cast a living eye upon you
and roll, weedy and barnacled,
and go back down.
Thanks to morphine his face
betrayed nothing, not impatience, nor sorrow,

nor gratitude, nor fear, none of the passions
of a dying animal. His poor bony chest,
his nose and fingers half white, half blue,
his cheek stubble like a light frost—
we could stare all we wanted.
Thanks to morphine the door was easy
to open as we arrived and left.
It wasn’t like someone being born,
the groaning, the leaky, bloody struggle
that ended with sad wails from the baby
and smiles elsewhere.
This was quiet, processional,
an orderly cell by cell evacuation
until the building stood empty
and the fire burned it down.


(from Rival Gardens, University of Nebraska Press, 2016)


Cabbage Moth

I’m suddenly aware that the air

is crowded with small wings.
I have something to protect now:

the greens I tucked in,
telling them a story.


Once there was a garden where, to live,

nothing required the death of anything else,

where even the fragile were fearless.
We had just one infinite language

that sounded like Mozart

sung by a cabbage. To learn it

you only had to breathe.


How to master the wind
is every moth’s spring obsession,
how to leave one’s eggs
affixed to the perfect under-leaf.
The dark spot on each white wing
is evidence of an entirely different life

that’s over, that succeeded,
before this troubled one began.


(from Rival Gardens, University of Nebraska Press, 2016)

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap