Roseanne T. Sullivan
“I felt,” Marquette would write, “a joy I can’t express,
To name for her that river which flows like a tress
Down the vast back of that great land we bring
To Christ, and trust to the protection of our king.”
The River of the Immaculate Conception: In Commemoration of the Premiere of the Mass of the Americas is a poem in seven parts by James Matthew Wilson, published as a chapbook by Wiseblood Books. The following interview with the author about the poem was conducted by email. Wilson’s responses are in regular type; Sullivan’s questions are in italics.
The Benedict XVI Institute brought you to San Francisco for the December 12, 2018 premiere of Frank La Rocca’s ”Mass of the Americas,” which was commissioned by the Institute. The Institute also commissioned you to write a poem about the Mass. I was surprised when I learned about the second commission. How did that come about?
I had done an interview with Catholic Arts Today [a publication of the Benedict XVI Institute] and was already planning to speak as part of a Benedict XVI symposium on René Girard and the Catholic artist. My particular practice as a poet is pretty obviously close in sensibility to Frank’s and so, on my end, it seemed an almost inevitable invitation. Not because
I make any great claims for my work, but because this kind of service to the Church is one that comes naturally and fits well with what I most love about poetry and the liturgy.
Historically, commissions by the Church supported the creation of much of the great art and music of Western civilization. Is there a similar tradition of great ecclesiastical poetry commissions?
Many poets have received significant patronage over the centuries, though it was generally less tied to a specific work. Dante received support from several patrons as he composed the Divine Comedy, some of whom he had criticized in early parts but had, as it were, to revise upward the great chain of being, as he came to depend on them for support as he cobbled together his poem. One thinks of Chaucer and E. A. Robinson as poets who received offices, in some cases sinecures—in others posts of real responsibility—that allowed them to complete their work. One of the advantages of being a poet—at least a poet in the classical tradition, as opposed to the unintelligible scrawlers of fragmentary free verse—is that verse writing is an extension and refinement of the practices of rhetoric. Most poets in history have written poetry within a broader and varied practice of writing in other genres, including writing as lawyers and diplomats. Though poetry may be one’s first love and though it is, objectively speaking, the highest art form, the poet usually has to do other things and to wield language— rhetoric—in varied ways, and it is this versatility that has, in the past especially, earned the poet patronage. Whether the ecclesial hierarchy directly supported poetry, that may be a less certain matter; poetry is less tied to place than, for instance, a work of sacred art intended to adorn the walls of a chapel.
Because the Institute was created by Archbishop Cordileone, your commission from the Institute was essentially a commission from the Church. Can you talk about the current status and possible future for commissioned poetry? Even if there was no modern precedent, maybe your commission will act as a precedent for the future.
I hope it will be. Dana Gioia’s The Catholic Writer Today proposed that the Church cannot and probably should not get too directly involved in supporting a Catholic literary culture, and with good reason. Cultures are driven and supported by institutions, but they cannot be reducible to them; they are a whole way of life of a people, after all. But some involvement of the Church in our letters has been typical in the past and is as important as ever now, especially in this age where literary life is so largely confined to the universities and colleges. The academy has never done a very good job of supporting culture. But a Church that understands it must foster a variety of institutions, including the academy but extending beyond it, would be one fine way to foster a renewal of our culture. For my own part, I now write poems by commission regularly, and I find it improves the quality of my work; when I am specifically writing without a sense of personal possession of the poem I am able to make it a kind of self-emptying, or rather, a self-giving enterprise, wherein part of the act of making is saying not only, “This thing will come to exist outside of and separate from me,” but indeed, “This thing is not mine. It is given to the Church.” At no point in writing The River of the Immaculate Conception did it feel like my poem, but rather, to the core of me, it seemed a poem I was writing in order to give it not just to one diocese but to the whole Church.
Your poem cycle describes with beauty many events in the holy history of the Catholic faith in the Americas. You dedicated the poem to composer Frank La Rocca, and also to the memory of Kevin Starr, a historian who wrote Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial Experience. In what way was your poem cycle inspired by La Rocca’s Mass setting?
The poem not only describes moments of the Mass, but follows directly the unfolding of the liturgy, sometimes in obvious and sometimes in subtle ways. Two poems take their titles from lines sung in La Rocca’s setting, and my “Hymn of Juan Diego” retells the revelation of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a narrative that follows closely the original Aztec account of the revelation but which also echoes La Rocca’s more lyric hymn on the subject in the Mass.
And how did Kevin Starr’s Continental Ambitions inspire what you wrote?
Kevin Starr was one of the great American Catholic writers and scholars of our age. His love of the Church and his peculiar way of learning to see America as a Catholic land, a Catholic drama, was a great gift—one made all the more precious because it must forever remain a fragmentary gift, cut short by his death. His and Daniel Sargent’s histories of Catholicism in America, which are also ways of coming to view America as Catholic, resonated with my own vision of America. As I touch on directly in one section, “Gloriosa dicta sunt de te,” as a Catholic blessed by God’s grace to be born and raised in Michigan, my own education in American history taught me that the archetypal American experience was that of the French Jesuits slipping down the veins of America, its rivers, in their canoes, to meet, learn from, trade with, and above all catechize the Indians. My poem also addresses the early, more brutal contacts of the Spanish with the Indians, but in both these moments, I see a vision of America as a place of grace, that is to say, not America as bare land ready for conquest by pioneers, but by as a great and beautiful mystery into which one enters in hopes of working out one’s salvation and spreading the glory and word of God. This has always been my America, thanks in no small part to Mrs. Rambo, my fourth-grade teacher! Starr, Sargent, and La Rocca helped me bring that vision to expression, because they saw it already more deeply and authoritatively than I did.
One of the many gratifying things about reading your poem was to learn that the Jesuit missionary priest Jacques Marquette was the first European to discover the great Mississippi that is so prominent in the history and lore of the United States and that he named it The River of the Immaculate Conception. How did you decide to make it the title of your poem cycle?
So much of this poem I bore within me for years—and years—and was waiting for it to come out. That’s how I write, how most poets do, bearing fragments on the interior until they so constellate as suddenly to form a luminous unity. Père Marquette’s adventures are among the oldest stories I carry with me. I have read the Midwestern Catholic writer August Derleth’s fine novel about Marquette to my own children. But, in the last few years, in a discussion of Starr’s work, I noted an author’s observation about Marquette’s consecration of the Mississippi, and it seemed to be the one fact that bears within itself everything there is to say about America as a new age in the life of the Church.
You wrote on the copyright page that the vision of Archbishop Cordileone and the supporters of the Benedict XVI Institute “[hold] that the greatest art, the greatest liturgy, the Catholic faith will celebrate is still to come.” Can you explain that to those who might think that the liturgy as it evolved over the centuries cannot be excelled?
Pope Benedict XVI allowed for the celebration of the Mass in the ordinary and extraordinary form because he understood that the upheaval of the last fifty years has cost the Church and its people a heavy price indeed. By allowing the forms of the Mass, and the actual practice of the Mass, a certain freedom to express the genius of the pre–Vatican II and the post–Vatican II sensibilities, some synthesis will gradually emerge. There may be less tinkering and less of a feeling of things being snatched away that had been dear and new things imposed that were at least in part alienating and confusing. As the final section of my poem observes, the Mass is always a heavenly banquet, and in that dimension it is perfect and can never be anything less than perfect; but so much of the Mass is our human participation in heaven, and we inevitably will find various, more or less perfect, typically imperfect, forms of expression—all of which we hope will be condign to the mystery in which we are absorbed, but which often won’t be quite. Everything short of heaven can be excelled, because only heaven is that most excellent of places.
At the Benedict XVI website, I saw this quote from you about “Mass of the Americas:” “This is what a flourishing religious culture looks like—piety being lifted up and sublimated in the actual liturgy of the Church.” You used “sublimated,” a term many of us know only from psychology. Can you explain further your thoughts behind this interesting statement?
That is, as it happens, the theme of the final section of River. Forget psychology. Sublimation is the lifting up of the mundane—the worldly—so that it bears within itself and gives expression to the absolutely great, the sacred.
Thank you very much! When will the book be available to the public?
Just last week, at the Catholic Imagination Conference hosted by Loyola University Chicago, I held in my hands for the first time The River of the Immaculate Conception in its beautiful, deep-blue jacket. Those in attendance had a chance to buy the book there. However, the official launch of the poem will take place on the same day that Frank’s “Mass of the Americas” is performed as part of an extraordinary form Mass in the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. There could be no more perfect place.
Frank La Rocca’s adapted Mass setting for the Extraordinary Form premiered on November 16, 2019, at the National Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., with a conference afterward.
I asked Maggie Gallagher, Director of the Benedict XVI Institute, how it came about that the Institute commissioned the poem cycle, and she replied:
“We knew the Mass of the Americas was going to be important: We are doing what Pope Benedict XVI urged in creating new art from the bosom of the Church, and working to create a Cathedral ‘pipeline’
to help it find new audiences and uplift souls. But what else makes a work of art significant? One important answer is that it is fertile: it gives birth to other works of art. That is why we are so pleased that James Matthew Wilson agreed to attend the Mass of the Americas. He was so inspired [that] instead of writing one poem, he created a whole song cycle. And this is the poet whom Dana Gioia told me is ‘the future of Catholic letters in America.’”