Michael Wurster is a poet it would be easy to take for granted. He's always around, always -- despite heart surgery not too long ago -- reading his work somewhere. Yet this founding member of the Pittsburgh Poetry Exchange is even more visible as a promoter, supporter and teacher than he is as a practitioner.
Still, as demonstrated by his recent The British Detective (Main Street Rag, $14), taking Wurster the poet for granted would be an oversight. Wurster's collection of terse, often amusing poems manages to be welcoming and accessible even while remaining, on some level, idiosyncratic and mysterious.
British Detective includes 61 poems, only two longer than a single one of the book's 5-by-8-inch pages. But in a few dozen lines (and often less), Wurster manages everything from street scenes, bar-stool anecdotes and eulogies to youthful summers, to surreally foreboding first-person mini-narratives and ruminations on historical atrocity.
Much of Wurster's concision and tone (watchful yet playful) seems to derive from Eastern traditions: He references Basho, and characteristically begins one poem with the haiku-ish "Consider the landscape in winter: / not waking up, no break of day." But he also works in longer lines, as in "Brigadier Jefferson C. Davis," a compelling persona poem: "They said I had / the eyes of a killer. I rolled up Dan Govan's Arkansas / brigade at Jonesboro like a sheet of paper."
The book is peppered with local references, including nods to Wurster's own longtime neighborhood, the South Side. ("A Pothole Big Enough for a Coffin" relates a favorite Wurster anecdote about why city redevelopment money first came to that community.) In "Liberating the Camps," Wurster powerfully mines history, the speaker attempting to feed soup to prisoners: "The people ... were afraid to eat the soup ... Please, for my sake as well as yours, / eat the soup."
On the down side, a few pieces, like a 9/11 poem, feel perfunctory.
Meanwhile, Wurster's most striking verses seem to be those that begin not with everyday life -- or even necessarily with images -- but with language itself, whose labyrinths are then traced to under-inspected corners of the human condition. (As his "Language" concludes: "The words lie / huge like dead kings on the plain.")
"The Corporation," for instance, begins by sketching some cataclysm: "It was some force, I won't say spirit / entered the humans and animals / and changed them. / Much fighting of a terrible nature." Then we meet the collection's title character: "We hired a British detective, / but he soon disappeared." The poem ends with an unnamed "protagonist" and a sense of unresolved mayhem somewhere in the distance.
There's also "Children at Play," in which
The children pose.
Some hold the python,
others the saw and axes.
The next page: Their limbs splayed flat.
Blues and greens spoil the picture.
The garden of God contains a secret honey.
It's a postmodern Grimm's tale, hilariously weird and gnomically unnerving.