There is often a harshness in Greta Wrolstad's poetry that brings on a dreaded feeling. In her most renowned poem, "Notes on Sea and Shore," she writes: "You were in your room overlooking the bay/ and never once glanced at the water, stayed/ with the blinds drawn, waited in the crowded/ rooms of your skull..." Later in the poem, she begins a stanza with, "Once again I am huddled under the freighted ocean," and ends another with a gruesome image: "When land appeared it was inhabited by men gnawing on the remains of other men."
Night is Simply a Shadow, the new collection of Wrolstad's poems, includes "Notes on Sea and Shore." It also includes other pieces with harrowing lines best described in the former University of Montana MFA student's own poetry as "not terror" but a "lullaby from which the danger is waking." Most of the darkness is couched in terms of the natural world—the way the ocean is unforgivable but not, perhaps, evil. Or the way we project our feeling of loneliness on an "unlit lamp." That darkness, though striking, is thankfully contrasted with breathtaking moments of light—"veins of gold spidering the corneal curve, bright/ threads shifting, untrappable"—and weird surprises such as in the poem "St. Petersburg," where she writes, "My mouth tastes of almonds, paper/ clips, someone else's tongue."
It's impossible to read Night is Simply a Shadow without some sorrow. Its release this August comes eight years after Wrolstad, at the age of 24, died in a car accident on Highway 200. She had just finished her first year of graduate school at UM. In her short time in the creative writing program, she served as a co-editor for Cut Bank literary magazine. She spent time in St. Petersburg, Russia, attending summer literary seminars, and her work reflects her time there. Poet and professor Joanna Klink got to know Wrolstad during her year at UM. Klink says Wrolstad's poetry has a signature "swerve" where it goes from "bloodless" to "a sudden specific warmth."
Klink recalls that Wrolstad had a quiet but strong presence.
"I thought she was shy at first," Klink tells me. "But she wasn't. She was observing."
Klink describes Wrolstad as more at home in herself than most 24-year-olds. You can hear that in the way Wrolstad crafts lines with a calm strength, as in her poem "This One is About Pain," where she writes, "I was propositioned in the thin hallway of Alaska, and left/ his fingers dislocated and empty."
The poems in Night is Simply a Shadow were selected by Klink and poets Michael McGriff and Britta Ameel, who were friends with Wrolstad. McGriff and Carl Adamshick, both editors at the Portland publishing company Tavern Books, released the collection. It's not a comprehensive look at her work, and McGriff says it leaves out some of Wrolstad's accomplished poems in order to serve the trajectory of the book. This is the issue of posthumous books. It's a fragile process. How do you know what an author would have wanted in their absence?
Some lines are difficult to read without thinking of Wrolstad's death: "Discover me. Let me be carried from this cold radiance/To feel at least one more human hand." But it seems important to try to read her work without letting it be overshadowed. Otherwise you miss how good it is. And you might also miss the more celebratory images and phrasing that speak to immortality, like in "Geography" when she writes, "In the dark-light I know we are parceled: every body is bound countless times inside itself."
What's great about the title Night is Simply a Shadow—which comes from a line in "Geography"—is that it illustrates the tone of Wrolstad's work. It acknowledges the beautiful darkness of some of her writing but it also, with the word "simply," swiftly reassures that night is nothing to fear. The Tavern editors and Wrolstad's poet friends have curated the collection to reflect that in an elegant way. By the final poem, "Fontaine De Vaucluse," which ends with, "the season of rain is coming, hold out your hand," you will feel less sorrowful and more lucky to have her words to read over again.
Carl Adamshick, Joanna Klink and Ed Skoog read from Greta Wrolstad's Night is Simply a Shadow at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., Oct. 1, at 8 PM. Free.