May 14, 2020
My brother calls, the virus long since passed,
And he back at his desk, as if it never
Had knocked him out or shaken him within.
“Do you just write about whatever happens
Around your house?” he asks, “or in the yard?”
“I worked my shed into a poem last week,”
I say, “and so, I guess.” Outside my window,
The songbirds raise a fugue of rapid twitters,
And crows erupt with loud, shrill interjections.
But, deeper, on the lower frequencies,
I hear the hum of digger and of crane,
A couple blocks away, their steady signal
That, all at once, construction has resumed.
The houses left unfinished, their garages
Like gaping mouths that bare the plywood darkness,
And lumber stacked before them like a tongue,
To these the crews return and take up hammers.
This working up quotidian life to poems
Just seems absurd to him, who for his living
Will turn a dollar into something useful,
Produce a thing that someone else will buy.
His way of life depends upon his seeing
How value can be skimmed from what was worthless,
Or, from crude stuff, some good that others want.
Just writing down what was already there
Doesn’t seem right.
Of course, that misses what
Is actually occurring when one takes
The settled details of the ordinary
And sets them rhyming one against the other.
Or, when one takes the plain prose of the hour,
The news report, the anecdote, the thought
That passes through the mind while one’s out walking,
The odd thing that one’s daughter said at breakfast,
And straitens it until it fits in meter
And runs in coded columns down the page.
It’s no less striking than what came of Daphne,
Her body hardened into ancient wood,
Or to those sisters who took up their perch
Within the mazed coiffure that hid her boughs
To sing each other’s sorrows in the dusk.
Von Hildebrand writes somewhere, what we call
“Prosaic” is man’s taking of the normal
And ruining it by mere routine, until
It seems mechanical or bureaucratic.
The adze the carpenter grips in his palm
Transformed to searing parts that run on gas;
The great bazaar, where carpets hang for sale,
Reduced to rented office suites whose clerks
Sit sighing as their fingers bend on keys.
We know just what he meant. As Percy said,
The whole world sometimes seems deep-sunk in sameness,
In sameness carries on, of sameness dies.
We yearn to be shocked out of what may kill us.
But Livia claimed this morning that I’ve said
Otherwise: art is of the ordinary.
And, yes, I probably have. For, do we not
Turn back upon what’s plain and most familiar,
Such things as we know well yet do not see,
And suddenly discover what they are?
So, Plato noticed that, because we think,
And thinking is an immaterial act,
We must have souls; and, since our souls cause motion,
They are its origin and, thus, immortal.
But he’s not through. If our souls are immortal,
They must in their vast motions have seen all,
Including that great pageant of the gods,
Who circle far above us, savoring beauty
As it shines forth from that which truly is,
The whole world ordered by their whirling thought.
Just staring inward on those things we know,
Our vision passes through and lights upon
What we would never otherwise have guessed.
And that is just what happens when our prose
Is sounded for its measured syllables
And forms itself to numbers we call verse.
Some doubt that it is possible to find
A god concealed within a homely man
Inclined to argue with himself in doorways,
Or that those seated at a dinner table
Could learn within the breaking of their bread
All that there is to know of truth or grace.
And so, they go in search of strange sensations,
They check the headlines for celebrities
Who’ve been tattooed, divorced, or wound up dead
With some mysterious substance in the stomach.
The virus numbers growing stale, they read
About a slaughter in a hospital,
And tally up the children carried out,
Or watch in wonder—once, and then again—
A man get shot and crumple on the pavement.
Still anxious for some change, they even dream
That death is a disease that will be cured
By some new gadget we can wear, or pill
That hasn’t been invented yet, but will.
But, turn away from this. Yes, turn away.
Our immortality is here, already.
It comes in even through the open window
That brings the rhythms of the daily round;
That looks down on the children in the yard,
And sees their play with sticks and grass and toys
Build new worlds at the center of the old;
And lets us lift our vision far beyond,
To find, between the oaks grown still at last,
The centering spire of St. Monica,
Which draws the eye up to its ringing height,
Which stands impassive to the fearful hour,
And lends the side arm of its iron cross
As eyrie to a preening red-tailed hawk.
-James Matthew Wilson