Poetry Review: Robert Wachal, a taste of November poems


Robert Wachal sits in the local pub Donnelly’s with wife Jane McCune — both sipping on cocktails and both appearing as much in love as they were when they married three decades ago. They have lived in Iowa City since before the pub was located on the Pedestrian Mall.

For Robert Wachal, growing old meant more inspiration for his writing. He grasped the term “Novembering,” the title of his first poetry collection, because it symbolized the time of his life he was in — aging and life’s end — during the 10 years he spent writing the poems for his work.

He will read from Novembering: Poems from Late in Life, today at 7 p.m. at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

Wachal and McCune have lived in Iowa City for almost 40 years. Wachal, a professor emeritus of linguistics, began working at the UI in 1964 as an English professor, later helping form the linguistics department in 1972. For more than 20 years, his work has been focused more on words than the creative aspect of writing. He published an abbreviations dictionary in 1999; then McCune urged him to consider compiling a book of his poetry, which he had not thought of doing.

Wachal hasn’t written much beyond the realm of verse — although McCune lovingly reminded him of children’s books he wrote years ago that went unpublished — but he has dabbled in writing a monthly column for the Press-Citizen on topics of his choice, though he said poetry remains his passion. His favorite poem in Novembering: Poems from Late in Life is on the first page.

“It’s from an actual conversation I had with my wife,” Wachal said.

The poem — titled “Toward the End of Days” — depicts a snapshot of an older married couple who remark on how happy they are in their maturing days.

“We should try to / Seize the day, every day / Left to us,” the poem ends, emphasizing the time the two have left together.

The rest of the collection is full of writings Wachal has been working on for the last 10 years.

“It’s everything that I’ve written that I thought wouldn’t embarrass me if I put it into a book,” he said. “Some of it isn’t very good, and some that’s good is very naughty.”

Wachal receives most of his inspiration in the early morning hours, when, he said, ideas come to him. Nature also plays a role in many of his poems, mostly because of his location.

“I also live in the middle of an oak forest,” Wachal said. “It’s easy for me to write [about] nature.”

Novembering: Poems from Late in Life is published by the Midwest-based company Ice Cube Books. Founder and family friend Steve Semken was a little dumbfounded by the idea of adding a book of poetry to his list of published works.

“Well, honestly, I try to stay away from poetry — there isn’t much of a market for it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “For some reason, though, I did decide to find out more about Bob’s book. Not knowing him, we arranged to meet so I could find out more about him and his writing. During this meeting, I decided this book was worth doing.”

Now at 80, Wachal has his fair share of experiences to put into his collection after working at the UI for so many years.

Though he writes about life experiences, there is one rule he abides by: “The no-porn rule,” he said.

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