The River of the Immaculate Conception by James Matthew Wilson
Wiseblood Books, 2019; 30 pp, $10.00
Review by Katy Carl
In classic American letters, a permafrost of Puritanism seems to underlie much discourse around religious faith, the supernatural, and the life beyond this one, even in poetry. Poe succumbs to its chill in the despair of “The Raven;” Dickinson hints at it, sometimes in despondency, sometimes in defiance; the Transcendentalists stand staring at it in quiet desperation, whether they admit this or not. Whitman reacts heavily against it, at times to the point of throwing sense as well as sound out the window in his desperate flight from it. More than a half century after Whitman—by the time Frost is writing “The Gift Outright” and reciting it at Kennedy’s inauguration—the Puritan spirit has been shouldered aside in American life by its polar opposites, materialism and neo-Pelagianism, but not without leaving traces behind.
In the universe of Frost’s poem the Puritan work ethic, if not the Puritan supernaturalism, is alive and well. In the poem it is through human efforts, through “many deeds of war,” that Americans (meaning, here, European immigrants to America) become the masters of the land—and always only ever its masters, its overlords. A life beyond the land, a context for its conquest, is not thought of—or, if thought of, not expressed. Nor, in the poem, is the land itself treated as other than the locus of human striving—in itself the country is “unstoried, artless, unenhanced;” plastic, malleable; matter, not form. The gap between what our bodies do and what our souls can apprehend is, for Frost here, manageable by human means. We ourselves are possessors and, as such, also “possessed” as a consequence of self-gift not to God but to his creation. For Frost our “salvation,” if any, is material, and lies in “surrender” to the material, to matter, to the land that is nothing until form is imposed on it by human activism in manifest destiny “vaguely realizing westward.” Only under the hands of humanity does the place, America, gain its (her) character: “such as she was, such as she would become.” The gift of the land is not truly gift but must be purchased at a cost: namely that of the human soul, “ourselves,” precisely that which it profits us nothing to lose.
This is all necessary preface to understanding another, warmer narrative that flows beneath the ice: in the words of poet James Matthew Wilson, “another history than the one we’re used to.” This narrative is the current into which Wilson’s newly released chapbook The River of the Immaculate Conception taps. The book consists of a song cycle divided into seven related but formally divergent parts. Each part highlights a different episode in the story of Catholic faith in America. The whole is both an echo of the structure of the Mass itself and, more specifically, a response to the music of Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas. Those interested in more detail about the relationship of the poetry to the music can read Roseanne Sullivan’s interview with Wilson at the start of this issue of Dappled Things; however, the poetry stands on its own.
Here are familiar stories, given fresh life in verse: the roses in the tilma of Juan Diego; the journeys and sufferings of Junipero Serra, Rose of Lima, Isaac Jogues, Martin de Porres, Pere Marquette; the sorrows and joys of Elizabeth Seton. Alongside them, in a Eucharistic simultaneity, Wilson juxtaposes moments from the present day: sacraments taking place in a cathedral for “brides and mourners;” childhood lessons and liturgies in a “lakeside chapel / Modest and plain, shaped like a wooden boat;” Wilson’s visit with his wife and young daughter to the California missions. These contemporary moments act as a counterpoise to ground us in familiar, lived reality: to place the life of sainthood not impossibly out of reach but close, local, within our scope and ambit.
Of particular excellence is Part V, “Gloriosa dicta sunt de te,” which can be read as an inversion of or development upon Frost’s “The Gift Outright.” In the vision of Wilson’s “Gloriosa,” which is both small- and large-C Catholic, the wellsprings of craft and of belief are united, not divorced. The land exists prior to its inhabitants and brings its own character to the works of creating a life and of creating art—a character to be learned and respected, not merely superimposed upon, by people. We are to think of the land of the Americas
Not as the stuff lain idle to be grabbed,
But as a stage, a platform where we stand. Not empty, for upon it we depend;
Not arbitrary, for it’s all been formed
So long before our dawning that we sense
A hundred histories have gone to dust
Deepening the hillsides, carving out its rivers.
The land, for Wilson, is not ours but God’s. Any gift of self or of creation is predicated on, a development of, God’s original giving. Our continents (for the story here is of the Church in the western hemisphere) have their own stories, meanings. They bring their enhancements to our work, rather than being mere “unenhanced” surroundings. This is visible above all in the central image of the river, which pre-exists our conceptions of it, which has its own shape, its own path, a path we must follow and that is not required to follow us. Under this framework, the naming of places is not an act of conquest but a recognition of what is already present and an act of hope, an aspiration to what could be:
. . . naming is a kind of grace not deed.
It clarifies what was not understood,
Such that what outwardly remains the same Becomes itself more fully and more truly,
Transformed within by the articulate light.
Part IV, “The Agnus Dei of Jacques Marquette,” may pose a challenge for some readers, as it did for me. It is possible to read the gallop of the alexandrine meter as a journey over rough terrain, analogous to its subject matter, the struggle and danger of mission. The scenes of Marquette’s passion and death are set with a skill and an eye for telling detail that a fiction writer can envy. This detail serves to ground in observable experience the events of the unobservable inner life taking place: one possible working definition of literary sacramentality.
At the conclusion and high point of the cycle, in the hymnodic smoothness of Part VII, “Hasten to Aid Thy People,” form and matter are in total harmony. The cycle concludes with a poem that both describes and invites an interpolation of nature and grace directly related to, and dependent upon, the act of transubstantiation in the Eucharist. What this final poem seeks to encompass—and, marvelously, for a breathtaking moment, succeeds—is not “the gift outright” but, as Wilson has it, “the gift that leaves behind all thought of price:” God’s gift outright to humanity, the incarnate Word, Jesus Himself. Higher praise is impossible. Yet, still more marvelously, the poem, like the Mass, presents Christ and not itself for our praise; like the Mass, it then turns the focus on its readers, on our actions. The poem ends by locating itself—in history, in America, among its readers, in Catholic life today—with a double reference to the “ruined choirs” both of old England and of our fragmented postconciliar life. In this context, given and not chosen, what will we in turn give? What will we gain? What will we choose to make, and to restore?