The poetry of James Matthew Wilson, a storyteller of spiritual anxiety
Nick Ripatrazone Aug. 23, 2019
“Can our age speak of tragedy / Anymore? Or is comedy / The only plot left in the room?” The poetry of James Matthew Wilson asks questions worth pondering — exhorting us to consider the shadow of tradition in the contemporary world. At moments tragic and comic, palpable and abstract, his creative work is well-presented in two recent volumes: “Some Permanent Things,” a revision and expansion of his first full-length book of poetry, and “The Hanging God,” new poems that capture his stylistic evolution.
Wilson has taught at Villanova University for over a decade, and recently received the prestigious Hiett Prize in the Humanities from the Dallas Institute of Humanities in Culture. He regularly publishes critical scholarship, but his poetry is not stilted or self-analytical. He’s a careful storyteller who starts with detail and setting, but allows his narratives to open toward larger concerns.
“Some Permanent Things” begins with the lines: “All wiry and cavern-chested, voices / Of rubber bands and spokes off bicycles.” Image and sound delivered in clean, sharp language. Later in the poem, the imagery becomes more gently metaphorical: “A high-perched floodlight bathes in blinding milk / A fleet of new sedans and minivans / Beyond the cyclone fence.” That’s a range Wilson plays well — he has a knack for poetic modulation.
The poem “At Father Mac’s Wake” is set in 1987, following the death of a retired priest. Father Mac’s mind had deteriorated during his final years of service: “having / Forgotten at the altar to recite / The Creed—or skipped, again, some other part / That left us staring with mouths full of prayer / For which he’d left no room.”
The poem’s narrator, then 12 years old, fidgets during the wake: “My friends were out / Playing, and looked on absence as defection.” The boy presses his mouth “against the humid lacquer / Thick on the pew, and with that stealing cowardice / Augustine tells us of, I drove my bike key / Into the wood as if to carve and scrape / Insignia of my envy and impatience.” His prayers are those of youthful unbelief; he wishes to never return to church. Years later, “those key-stabs I made may still be scarred / In the pew’s aging wood, a seeming accident / That only I can read in memory: / Signs of a last attack before defeat.”
A longer poem, “Verse Letter to My Father,” exhibits the same storytelling talent. When the narrator was six, his father, a woodworker, was building the boy a desk. “You left the radio on when not around— / At work perhaps, or out to cut the lawn. / And I would look up at its half-hewn form, / Hear the roar as the mower raised and turned, / And sense some new creation growing warm.”
Along with his bed and crucifix, the desk is a “permanent fixture of my childhood.” Although “everyone said it was beautiful, / Though you rubbed soap along the drawers, I could / never get them to open without yanking.” The boy didn’t use it for homework, though; mostly as a “crypt” where “rocks, old coins, and toys accrue / With comic books.” But the boy still showed off the desk to guests, and the poem remains a work of gratitude: “You are the person who has taught me most / Of various kinds of doing and of making. / And when you left your workshop idle, you / Furnished as well a mystery of unmaking.”
“The Hanging God” is suffused with those mysteries. In his foreword to the collection, Dana Gioia identifies an “overpowering sense of spiritual anxiety in many poems. I expected their moral alertness, sacramental sense of the world, and moments of redemptive grace. But I was startled by the dark psychological isolation they frequently portray.”
I agree with Gioia that there is a particularly Catholic strain of poetic melancholy, and would add to the lineage he offers; I see Wilson working within a tradition of poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, and Franz Wright. Wilson’s prosody differs from several of those poets, but they all share a melancholic touch. Rather than hampering his work into maudlin verse, this melancholy sense adds gravity to Wilson’s work — whatever the subject.
The book’s first epigraph is from Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées:” “there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings.” Nothing in nature, Pascal continues, has been acceptable in replacing the absence of God, resulting in a curious paradox: “And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction.”
This melancholy lamentation first arrives in “Agricola: A Song for Planting.” “I’ve looked with hope on stony ground,” the narrator says. “I’ve scythed the grain at autumn’s blush. / But now, the earth is cold; the browned / And fallen husks of last year crush // Beneath my booted step.” He finishes the poem: “What pretty lie did I speak when / I cast my efforts to sustain / Each growth? Each year forgives my sin, / But remnants of each loss remain.”
The highest point of the book from a stylistic and narrative standpoint is his series, “The Stations of the Cross,” one of the finest Catholic sequences of recent memory and worthy fodder for Lenten contemplation.
In “Jesus is Condemned,” the narrator is praying during Lent. “I tried to think for half an hour / About the face of earthly power / That would condemn a god to die.” He hears and thinks of the “hum of homeward motors, / A candidate’s rank appeal to voters.” He then concludes: “For we sit kind, when comfort’s here, / But draw our weapons with our fear / Should we one pleasure be denied.” Wilson’s poetry often forces readers to engage in some spiritual reflection and self-assessment, as in “Jesus Falls a Third Time”: “How many times must he absolve me / Till I grasp who’s saved by his fall?”
“The Hanging God” is the story of a falling world, and the work of a poet who cares enough to document the descent. Taken together, Wilson’s poetry might be best encapsulated with a few lines from “Some Permanent Things:” “It is just such a hope or its despair / That we find in our oldest poetry, / Such that we see a poem such as this one / Serves more to state than solve our mortal plight.”
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
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