For most of us, expressing the ineffable is difficult because language is limiting. We can express profound depths of being but sometimes, words are inadequate, empty, and evoke frustration. For James Matthew Wilson, there are no limits to language and the words he chooses to depict a variety of religious and metaphysical experiences are most certainly not empty, and instead, they evoke contemplation. In his new collection of poetry, The Hanging God, Wilson explores the good, the beautiful, and the true but also the odd. In the midst of this ordered universe, Wilson’s elaborate, complex, and graceful imagination offers us glimpses of human ugliness and peculiarities.
Poetry is an art form that is close to music because it doesn’t give us that absolute answer that we are seeking to the myriad of existential questions that animate our lives. In fact, poetry does not necessarily pose any questions and if it does, they are purely incidental. Wilson’s poems are not a series of logical equations (as much as they formally follow rhyme and meter) or philosophical inquiries (even though his poetry tends to invite them). And yet, the voice of the poet behind the stage seeks meaning in this strange world we live in, and what is more philosophical than that?
Most of the poems in this collection deal with, in one way or the other, being a witness—witness to ugliness, beauty, evil, good. At first glance (both from the title and the themes found in many of the poems), it would seem that they are all Christian or to be more precise, Catholic. And because of this that they are only made for a Catholic reader. But this is not the case. The Catholic faith informs Wilson’s poetic endeavors but much like Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy, he doesn’t turn and use Catholicism as a remote and cold ideology. His poems are not distant from the reader. As someone who is neither Christian nor Catholic, I found Wilson’s work to be completely accessible and humanistic. In many ways, Wilson has preserved the catholicity of his faith and illuminated the universal within the particular. Faith he experiences forms the vision and voice of James Matthew Wilson, the poet. For him, this is a metaphysical experience.
The most obvious example of religious expression is in the section simply titled, “The Stations of the Cross.” Wilson presents us with ancient and historical images of Jesus’ suffering—“His limbs splayed, writhing, as he hung there,/Murmuring of a kingdom somewhere/The Roman guards had never been.” And yet, in the midst of ancient pictures, Wilson takes us into our present reality as he wonders why an innocent man would be condemned—“I tried to think for half an hour/About the face of earthly power/That would condemn a god to die.” In another instant, Wilson asks “Can our age speak of tragedy/Anymore? Or is comedy/The only plot left in the room?” The reality of the Cross is in many ways beyond time, beyond being, beyond anything we can possibly comprehend. This is Wilson’s message and yearning to understand.
It would be unfair and far too simplistic to say that Wilson’s poems about Jesus’ suffering are religious, while others which don’t show such images are secular. Even the everyday, mundane details of life are imbued with suggestive images of reality that is higher than our mortality. In “Bright Apples,” the narrator’s quiet and nostalgic remembrance of things past is interrupted by a sick woman sitting next to him. The narrator stops his daydreaming to pay attention to the “heavy woman,” who endlessly complains and chatters—
…I tried to show my sympathy
With a grave nod, but that was not enough
For her. She levered on her stilt, then shuffled
Up to the secretary at her desk.
Settling her weight upon the cane’s head, she
Explained that with the injury she’d lost
Her job, and now was caring for her mother,
Whose emphysema meant she had to stay
In bed, hooked up to oxygen.
Intentionally or not, Wilson writes a poem with dry humor and paints an image of utter annoyance. The narrator is at the edge of his patience, hoping the woman will receive the compassion that is offered. The sick woman is seemingly unaware of this burden, however transient and temporary, that she is giving away. It’s not hard to relate to this entire scenario especially if the reader is the one who is generally on the receiving end of never-ending stories of misery. And yet, despite the annoyance, Wilson’s voice is separated from the artist’s judgment. The woman, in all her misery, still has a distinct interior voice.
Another poem, which falls into a similar category is “Dreams That Come Friday.” It describes a day in the life of an accountant, who unsurprisingly is not a big fan of his job and dreams of retirement, Jimmy Buffet and that perfect Cheeseburger in Paradise and “white sails.” But the reality is different.
The burned dirt taste of coffee in his mouth
Blows gusts through all these dreams of sailing south,
Returns him to his proper task: “That’s what
I’m paid to do,” he smiles, then turns to shut
His basement office shades to that the feet of
Of passerby in rain-proofed shoes won’t greet
His creased but docile eye. “I’ll leave at eight,”
He says, “but, please, now, please, brain, concentrate.”
What is he living for? What has he made? Do we feel sorry for him? Do we laugh at him? Or are we indifferent? He’s not pitiable and yet we can’t look away from his small existence. But, in the end, why should his existence matter less than ours?
Wilson is not afraid to commit his words onto the poet’s parchment. This is especially true of a series of poems called “Wiped Out,” about a doomed love affair with a woman who turns out to be a stripper. Erotically charged, the poems reveal the wants and needs of the flesh, of sexual decadence, of pleasure, pain, hunger, and thirst. The voice of the male narrator pleads with the woman to release him from the labyrinth of lies and false eros, yet he keeps coming back to her, seemingly insatiable. The more pleasure he receives, the more confused he is by this distant woman and he cannot comprehend his own obsession with the whole situation. He will do anything to be close to her—“Most nights, if she was dancing, I would sit/On a stool near the regulars, and we/Would buy rounds, talk of work or boats.” But even here, he feels like a fraud. She is indifferent to his valiant attempts to save her from this life but “The law of lust/Knows nothing of all this.” These are the poems of a man reaching toward the sacred in both himself and the woman but all he is finding is the profane. Their encounter is anything but private (in the sacred sense) and reveals the disconnect from the rest of the world. The privacy that this lustful encounter represents is hollow and perhaps even, transgressive in the narrator’s mind. Yet he keeps reaching toward something bigger than themselves, something which will tie them to the community and provide the link between past, present, and future. He is desperately seeking holiness and saintliness and the reader can only hope that he exits the empty cries of nothingness, step away from the abyss, and find himself whole again in a possible encounter with God.
Of course, every reader will be affected differently by Wilson’s poems. For me, the crowning achievement of this collection is a poem titled, “Some Will Remember You,” which details the life of Edith Stein—philosopher, theologian, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and Carmelite nun. Stein’s legacy has become complicated since her death. For the most part, interpreters of her work focus on the fact that she was a superb philosopher, who studied under Husserl, developed her own metaphysics through the use of Thomistic theology and phenomenology, and has greatly influenced the work of John Paul II. The fact that she was born Jewish and that she died in Auschwitz as a nun generated a controversy over who should honor her and why: did she die for her Jewish heritage, as a martyr for her Catholic convictions, or both?
Through the series of powerful, emotional, and phenomenological images, Wilson rescues Stein from all the critics and lets her be. He acknowledges the choices she made in her life.
Not just in death, her study’s parasite;
But in the working out of truth and choice,
In words that prayed when others lapsed to rage,
She’d guide, perhaps, the bullet, guide the voice
Of John Paul up the mountain of an age.
Wilson shines light on Stein’s spirit and shows a seeking soul. As the reader moves through the poem of Stein’s biography, he will sense a progression of Stein’s being and hopefully grasp the unity of her choices and tragic end. Ultimately, whatever we may call her—a Jew, a convert, philosopher, saint—she is still Edith Stein. It’s impossible to utter any more words about this sacred poem. I can only say that I wept.
Wilson’s poetry deserves attention. He is not trying to be subversive or to reject the traditional poetry. He is not indulging in any sort of post-modern narcissistic musings. On the contrary, these are poems about revelation and concealment of human finitude and encounters with God. They do not mask or betray the inherent dignity of humanity but reveal the possibility of being, however bearable or unbearable it may be. More than anything, they speak about the reality of life and the love we give, receive, or reject.