Whoever read this book before me has left their mark—in pale blue ink, a tiny print I struggle to decipher, curious about how they made sense of these poems I often cannot make sense of. I have penned a few black question marks beside passages that confounded me,an enthusiastic yes here and there, but a lot of frustrated huhs. The previous reader’s comments include artifice (though they misspelled it artiface) and meta (to which I mentally reply: not quite).

But when I get to ineluctable . . . like turnips, the poem itself disappears. I’m flummoxed, trying to imagine where the image of a lowly root vegetable could have possibly come from and what about it the previous reader might have found ineluctable?

I look the words up, to be sure I’ve got my definitions right—and yes, it’s adj. incapable of being evaded; inescapable—just as I thought—though it’s news to me that a turnip is of the mustard family and basically the same thing as a rutabaga—a word that almost invites a yodel. I want to sing it, more than eat it, maybe hold one in my hand to contemplate the essence of rutabaga for a while, though I’ve never bought one in my life and am not about to go shopping today, because of the pouring rain that seems, right now, incessant, though not, thank God, ineluctable. Not like inescapable rutabagas.

I flip back to the beginning of the book and find what I had at first read as a curious Croatian scribbled next to an opening stanza. Upon closer inspection, I decide it must be creation—though that seems no more connected to the poem at hand—and then I find another page where my predecessor, whose comments have now become more compelling to me than the poems, crossed out the author’s fear and below it wrote, once again, turnip, which makes me lol this time, though I don’t scribble that on the page, as I might have if turnip was actually in the poem.

I stare at the word, try to see its letters as possibly other letters, but it’s T-U-R-N-I-P all right, each consonant and vowel tiny but distinct, though the word as thing is incomprehensible in this context. Word made flesh of a vegetable now made esoteric text. The previous reader and I were clearly not “on the same page,” even when we were. Or maybe their non sequitur comments were their way of saying they found these poems to be nonsensical.

Thumbing ahead, I discover that, halfway through the book, the comments stop. There are some underlined lines, some stanzas encased in brackets, but nothing in the margins. Just the poems printed on the page, surrounded by the white space in which they float. I wonder if my predecessor gave up on the book or simply had nothing to say beyond page 47? Do I read their silence as a frustrated abandonment or a happy immersion into the poems as they are—no commentary needed? I feel a little abandoned myself, left to my own devices, missing the ménage à trois of meaning-making I was starting to enjoy.

Paul Valéry said, “poems are never finished—just abandoned,” but he was talking about the writing of them. We take our poems to a point beyond which we cannot go, and “abandon” them into the hands of readers, bestowing upon them a gift they never asked for, hoping they may discover it was exactly what they needed, or at least find it more to their taste than the ugly sweater they got from Aunt Marge. The sweater may eventually end up at Goodwill, but we hope some reader somewhere someday will extend another kind of good will to what we see as our life’s work.

I’ve been trying to do that with this book but must admit now I am failing. I’m more interested in the palimpsest the previous reader left me with than I am in the poems. When you’ve been dragged that far out into the margins, it’s time to admit you are not the best recipient for this particular gift—and yes, I still believe the book may well be a gift, and no, I will not reveal the poet’s name. I will pass the book on—my DNA mingling with my WTFs, with the turnips that were planted on the page to make me ponder, as words will, in their own ineluctable way.

Grace Bauer is the author of six books of poems—most recently Unholy Heart: New and Selected Poems (University of Nebraska Press/Backwaters Press 2021). She also co-edited the anthologies Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse and Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical & Creative Responses to Everette Maddox. Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. An Aaron Douglas Professor Emerita, she taught for 25 years in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore