Green Hills Literary Lantern


Stephen Wingate, Thirty One Octets

In “Octet in Praise of Earth’s Perfume,” Steven Wingate ruminates on “the smell of earth,” eventually concluding that “The smell of earth should be the centerpiece of / some religion, and I should be its founder.” He refers the reader to the smell of earth’s past prophets, a host of entities including Thoth, Jesus, and Janis Joplin. He cites unverifiable sources such as the secret libraries of the late Shah of Iran and the contact number 1-800-SML-ERTH which, for those wondering, brings you to the Safety and Security Department of a van company if called. When Wingate proclaims “At last, a unifying religion! And–quite literally–right under our feet,” his casual tone and freewheeling references therefore make it easy to laugh, appreciate the clever observation, and move on. However, the poem does not allow this, for it returns its reader to the smell of earth with each new stanza, culminating with the pulsing verse:

The smell of earth suffuses. This is our mantra;

repeat it after me. The smell of earth (inhale) suffuses

(exhale, pause). The smell of earth. . .  suffuses. . . .  The

smell of earth. . .

It becomes clear that Wingate’s observation of the unifying nature of the smell of earth is not casual: it is both earnest and prudent. The earth is one of the few commonalities between humankind’s disparate pantheons and epochs, and the smell of earth is both a symbol and symptom of life. In this octet and the thirty others that form Wingate’s Thirty-One Octets (CW Books; 2014), breath (smell, spirit, caesura) stands as a unifying mantra which allows Wingate’s verse to rove. Wingate collides oracular prophesy with personal memory, the mystical with the mundane, and walks with the reader through his “incantations and meditations” reflecting on the shared qualities of human life that unite us all, living and lived.


Throughout the book, the structure of the octet not only maintains, but also enacts Wingate’s mantra of breath. Each poem consists of eight anaphoric stanzas, and the verse’s use of repetition creates a consistent and driving tempo for Wingate’s self-described “word horde.” Such a title aptly illustrates Wingate’s outpouring of verse, and the pulse of repeated phrases helps tether his poems’ many jumps to a central image. One might wonder what chestnuts, a faux-leopardskin purse, and Henry Miller have in common, but Wingate supplies an answer “In Paris. . . In Paris. . . In Paris. . .” In many ways the structure of the octets approximates the practice of meditation, fixating on a focus while sustaining mindfulness of the many diversions, associations, and distractions our mind introduces seemingly of its own accord. Instead of letting these jumps pass, however, Wingate records them into a study on interconnections: the octet. Thus “Octet of Distorted Affection for Paris” is an intermingling of names, places, and objects unified into a reflection on Paris, which reveals to the reader a famed, sometimes mythic location through the lens of personal memory and introspection. Wingate’s good-natured irreverence ensures that his reflections never feel exclusive, and he combines his humor with astute observation to craft quips of verse that are as engaging as they are instructive, such as “In Paris, the world’s most romantic city, all the locals / looked like they hadn’t gotten laid in months.”


Wingate’s tendencies to address the reader and to refer to the book itself can at times be jarring, but also create a distinct impression of unity between reader and poet. In “Octet for Silence, to be Read Aloud” Wingate writes

I must quietly go upstairs and get myself another

cup of coffee so I can finish this book in the proper

spirit of maudlin panic, tiptoeing even though

everyone else is out of the house. I’m actually going

to stop writing now and come back armed with

caffeine. Please observe some similar gap between

our current stanza and the next to amplify this

moment of communion between us.

This communion extends Wingate’s investigation of the connections in the world to the relationship between his readers and himself. He integrates questions and frank imperatives (“Fold your hands together and breathe.”) with his cascade of associations and images, thereby achieving a familial tone that gives the distinct impression his poems are being written for you as you read them. The extemporaneous, natural flow of Wingate’s sprawling reflections coupled with the octets’ attention to form lends Thirty-One Octets a sibylline, chanted quality. It is thus part riddle and part guidebook, an inviting and expansive work that will engage any reader who investigates the many connections, collision, and correspondences within its verse.


Shawn Bodden is a recent graduate of Truman State University where he studied English, Linguistics and Russian. He is from St. Louis, Missouri and is participating in the 2013 Fulbright Program to teach English in the Republic of Georgia. He is a regular reviewer for GHLL.