Helen Pinkerton Trimpi
The Violent and the Fallen
by James Matthew Wilson
Finishing Line Press, 2013
James Matthew Wilson’s new collection of poems, The Violent and the Fallen, demonstrates his command of major themes of modern experience in a style that is unusually complex, but always exact, profound and deeply insightful. His intensity of thought draws the reader into an absorbing confrontation with the nitty-gritty of the contemporary urban world and its many kinds of people, young and old. Often, he seeks out stark urban scenes and events which are difficult to depict, and succeeds brilliantly.
In an interview at Hillsdale College, September 19, 2013, when Wilson was asked about the meaning of his phrase “the violent and the fallen,” he replied that his poetry “tends to explore the fallenness of things and the way in which a slow, patient investigation of our lives actually reins in that flailing will and makes it possible to reason, to figure out how the world is structured, how the soul should be conformed to that structure.” His book is “about awakening to a world where we’re often violent and lustful beings, trying to find the permanent truth that can give us purpose, order, and discipline.” This is a large order for any poet to satisfy, but Wilson, in the majority of the poems in this collection, has filled it.
While Wilson most often explores the thoughts and feelings of others, he is also self-explorative, although not self-exploitative, as so much of contemporary poetry is in its spectacular confessional modes. He is not interested so much in exhibiting his own “fallenness,” as anxious to get beyond it. An example of this is “At the Public Pool,” where during the moment of rescuing his daughter from drowning in a pool, he becomes conscious of the attraction of the “soft dark” of the female lifeguard’s “tanned, bikinied” thigh. He compares the near drowning to “another kind of fatality”: “I clutched my daughter, but my eyes searched her, / And dreaded what, a moment, I could wish.”
To deal with the urban world and his relationship to it, he has developed a structure that appears to me to be very effective: description, conscious involvement, and deliberate withdrawal for commentary. Through accurate description, his intensity of feeling draws the reader into an absorbing confrontation with the complexities of modernity as he travels the United States, Ireland, and France. Many of his best and most effective poems exhibit this technique. In a very short poem he can depict the consciousness of a person clearly and movingly, and then relate that consciousness specifically to his own, thus giving his observations a remarkable objectivity and power.
For example in “The Mishawaka Cruisers,” he describes the activity of a crowd of young men driving cars on a certain street in Mishawaka, Indiana, cruising up and down the street with loud mufflers, “waiting, talking, searching through the dark.” Each detail he notes is clear and sharp:
Their midnight-blue mesh jerseys are the fields
On which blank luminous 15s appear
In answer to the strokes of passing headlights.
A line of weekend cruisers, mufflers loose
And loud with bragging, makes its measured circuit
Along three blocks of neon fast-food chains,
The darkened panes of auto dealerships,
The Checks-Cashed, and the boarded Dollar Store.
The description continues with visual exactitude—no blurring of the fine details. Then, the poet places himself in the scene:
Three boys follow my car as it gets trapped
Within the caravan, eyes settling for
My mute impatience in lieu of the hope
Of spying an unknown batch of girls with beer.
Above them “the sky opens into sweeping plains / That neither field nor parking lot, nor lights / Studded along the row of burning signs / Could penetrate or prettify. The sky / Is just an empty clearing for the heat.” Then, the poet identifies their world with his own, even while he remains the observer:
And though these boys’ hearts pound with want and weakness,
And though cars fill the street with chrome and order,
I catch the vacant boredom just beneath.
He feels as they feel, and describes their feeling: empathizing with what they lack and want:
Just then, a gap forms as two girls hop out
From a green pickup’s cab to join the crowd,
And I escape, turn right off the main drag.
Their eyes pursue my fenders, then turn back
In search of something worth the endless waiting.
However, he can distinguish himself from them, even while he nearly becomes the same as they are, because,
I have a place to go, someone to meet,
But in their restless still-becoming rests
My own dread of the bare, the incomplete.
Wilson repeats this technique of close identification, followed by distancing, in several other poems set in bewildering urban settings that American poets have tried to deal with effectively since the early twentieth century. Wilson, however, sees the cold bare inhumanity of urban traffic, the restlessness typical of modern city life, as reflective of his own “still-becoming” transient suffering, and is able to turn to “a place to go, someone to meet.” He will not drift aimlessly, if he can avoid it.
The technique I have described appears in a very different setting in “The Gypsies: On the Margins of Tours.” Here, Wilson suggests through an epigraph from Philippe Jaccottet, the Swiss francophone poet, that his complex feeling of identification and estrangement can occur in any environment: “Comme je suis un étranger dans notre vie.” In a woods near Tours, France, where he has been sleeping, he encounters a group of gypsies. Awakened at midnight by their fire and their “madrigals tongued in the light of gypsies, /Their curious foreign sounds,” he sees them “sway before the fire, as if /A brood of curious drunks who’ve staggered in sight / Of some town’s decorous dances.” He senses their alienation from the town and identifies with it. Then, as he walks
Back toward town, my words, not theirs, seem as those
On whom all decorous shrugging doors have closed.
Like the gypsies, he feels excluded from more “decorous” people.
In a very different kind of poem, an elegy, Wilson is equally effective. “At Father Mac’s Wake,” is a moving recollection of his relationship to a parish priest, whose wake he was obliged reluctantly to attend as a boy of ten years. Returning in memory, he recalls that he had used his bike key to record his anger and his envy of his friends, who were playing outside, by defacing with repeated stabs the pew in which he sat. He sees now that these stabs were signs “of a last attack before defeat”—his boyish battle with Christian belief.
In the later poems in his book, the poet turns definitively away from the perspective of the Baudelairean “flaneur” of many of his earlier poems to a new world of welcoming human love. He signals this change effectively in “The New Life,” with its suggestive title, and its dedication: “For Hilary.” In a traditional formal love sonnet he brings to a close the old vagrant life depicted so movingly in the earlier poems. He admits his habitual detached but still explorative attitude:
Though neither young nor old, nor full of wine,
Nor blind, exactly, though my sight was poor,
I crouched, a beggar waiting for a sign
So obvious the dead could not ignore.
All the time he had really been looking for more than just sympathetic identification and withdrawal:
A flaneur so much as is possible
In a despoiled city such as this,
Amid the listless crowd, I casually strolled,
Searching for a stare not quite purposeless.
He found one, for, he concludes, “Then you came—sign, stare, cure, and word—and brought / A new life where none was but one was sought.” The flaneur has, at last, found a resting place.