Baron Wormser first gained recognition as a poet, with collections like Good Trembling (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), Atoms, Soul Music and Other Poems (Paris Review Press, 1989), and the award-winning When (Sarabande Books, 1997). He has produced seven more collections, including his latest, Unidentified Sighing Objects, which came out in 2015 from CavanKerry Press. Wormser was Maine’s poet laureate from 2000 to 2005 before moving to Vermont, where he currently lives.
Wormser’s verse blends emotion and intellect; he can riff on Thomas Eakins, Bud Light, or global warming. He is a brilliant portraitist of the outcast and overlooked: Taxi drivers, people with stutters, a dopester named Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a hitch-hiking self-proclaimed fucked-up welder all show up in his 2010 collection Impenitent Notes. He can also be political: his 2005 collection Carthage addresses the failings of George W. Bush.
At the same time, Wormser has led the charge for poetry in schools, publishing Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves (Routledge, 1999) and A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000; 2004 Heinemann reprint). He has taught numerous workshops and was founding director of the annual Conference on Poetry and Teaching at the Robert Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire.
The Poetry Life: Ten Stories (CavanKerry Press, 2008) is a part of Wormser’s poetry-in-the-commons agenda. These short fictions describe how the work of 10 poets — among them, William Blake, John Berryman, Audre Lorde, Weldon Kees, Elinor Wylie, Gregory Corso, and Sylvia Plath — might impact the lives of everyday people: a teacher, a high-school student, a waitress at Mickey’s Burger Pub, a caregiver at the Hill and Dale Manor. It’s an altogether remarkable way to pay tribute to these writers while promoting the integration of poetry into our everyday lives.
Wormser has proven himself a brilliant limner of rural life, producing The Road Washes Out in Spring (2008), considered a classic of New England non-fiction, right up there with Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods and Henry Beston’s Northern Farm, for its evocation of a backroads life. As the librarian at Madison High School in Maine’s western mountains, he came to the reality of his eloquent narrative through firsthand knowledge of the challenges of life off the grid.
In 2013, Wormser published his first novel, Teach Us That Peace (Piscataqua Press). Drawing on memories of growing up in Baltimore in the early 1960s, he revives those charged times — characterized by the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, assassinations — through the eyes of Arthur Mermelstein and his mother, Susan. The personal and, at times, comic narrative of a Jewish family dealing with the conflicts of the time has drawn comparisons to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
For his second novel, the tour-de-force Tom o’ Vietnam (New Rivers Press, 2017), he uses an open narrative form, blending the voice and experiences of a homeless Vietnam veteran with those of King Lear. Dark wit and intellectual vigor mark the writing, as does empathy; the novel embraces the off-kilter, still-traumatic existence of a man undone by an unnecessary and misguided war.
This brings us to Legends of the Slow Explosion: Eleven Modern Lives. Wormser returns to an open discursive form in the book, crafting sketches of a diverse group of historical figures from the second half of the 20th century, “the time of tremendous human invention, the true coming of mass society worldwide,” as he puts in a preface. He offers one commonality among his chosen roster of writers, civil rights activists, artists, and thinkers: they “speak from the era’s Cold War heart.”
Wormser explains up front that his “legends” are not “strict accounts,” although they contain details of their lives. “If we cannot trust the bold outlines an exceptional life creates,” he proposes, “then we have little to go on as we move blankly forward in the modern times of another century.” First up is Rosa Parks, with this riff to get things going:
Where it started was uncertain. There was Africa. There were the ships. There was the auction block: twelve bucks for sale, ages twelve to twenty, and two wenches. There were thousands of wombs available to the master and his sons.
And there was the dinner table, Wormser writes, where it was “Pass the bread. Pass the butter. Pass the Negroes who are as much our property as the bread and butter.”
Wormser revisits her famous stand-off protest in Montgomery, Alabama. Blocking the “accustomed course of obedience,” he notes, Parks “might as well have been a mountain there on that bus. All her spirit congregated in her unmoving body.”
From Parks, Wormser moves to Hannah Arendt, the renowned German-American political theorist and philosopher. He touches on episodes in her life—her affair with Martin Heidegger, the suicide of her sister Clara, her coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial—but also imagines how she might have reacted to hearing the Beatles’ “Help” while standing outside a record store in New York City.
In channeling Arendt’s thought process and response to culture, Wormser fashions his own bon mots. “The human capacity for arguing backwards,” he writes about our tendency to accept the march of history as something expected, “is as bottomless and frightening as the human capacity for accepting whatever comes marching down the disastrous pike.” Then there’s this snarky commentary on language that Arendt might have voiced: “German honored the invention of entities. English was made for ordering fish.”
Wormser’s portraits are empathetic but unflinching in presenting the reality of the lives lived. In writing about peace activist and Roman Catholic priest Philip Berrigan, who spent over a decade in prison for his activism, he clearly has enormous admiration for the man’s efforts to bring attention to, and undermine, the American war machine, yet he also faces the facts. “In taking on the reality of the State,” Wormser notes, “Philip was tilting at a massive, vindictive windmill.” What Berrigan and others did, he writes, “was to connect the dots between racism, permanent war in the name of defense, daily violence, and the narcotic of the materialistic life.”
There are two musicians among Wormser’s 11: George Harrison and Miles Davis. The former’s portrait begins with an evocation of the World War II bombing of Liverpool and the quiet that followed as families recovered. We encounter the young Harrison in school, barely paying attention to his teachers, fantasizing about other worlds: “Most of childhood is imagination running in place,” Wormser sums it up. But then Harrison hears Elvis Presley sing “Heartbreak Hotel,” his voice “like petrol and honey, a slow sweet beseeching fire,” and he finds his calling.
The Davis piece is a singular homage, an embrace of man and music. The trumpeter is multi-faceted, difficult, provocative — “one of those burners like Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky,” as Wormser describes him. The music — the man’s jazz — “didn’t fit into the nation at large with its marching bands and cowboy songs and hit parade, its how much was that doggie in the window.”
There were moments when this reader became annoyed by Wormser’s presumptions regarding what a subject was thinking at a particular time: Harrison looking out a hotel window at throngs of fans thinking “how absurd all this was,” for example, or Willem de Kooning musing that progress is foolish. At times some infatuation creeps in, as in his homage to Audrey Hepburn: “She breathed the very lightness of being.” But these aren’t even stumbles; they’re Wormser waxing lyric out of an over-arching admiration for, and fascination with, his subjects.
In reading these portraits, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, that brilliant recreation of the life of the Roman emperor, came to mind. Like Yourcenar, Wormser has a way of framing ideas and making statements inspired by another’s life that resonate well beyond the context of the biographical. “Reason took prejudice’s hand and went for a walk in the segregated park,” he writes in his Miles Davis piece. The jazz singer Anita O’Day and her love life inspire this observation: “Romance was confetti that lust left in its wake.”
The cover of Wormser’s book features that famous photomontage “Leap into the Void” (1960) by Shunk-Kender (Harry Shunk and János Kender) showing the artist Yves Klein seemingly flinging himself off a low roof toward the street below. It’s an image that provokes a kind of surreal and existential ecstasy and terror, and perfectly conjures the character of the post-World War II world.
“All of my work, all of my writing,” Wormser said in an interview with Richard Cambridge in Solstice, “is about the circumstances of Time in terms of each of us as a human being, being born into the world of historical time — what that does — how that plays out in our lives.” His “Legends” represent another brilliant foray into the zeitgeist.
Legends of the Slow Explosion by Baron Wormser is published by Tupelo Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.