If you’ve read James Matthew Wilson’s political and social commentary, you know he is capable of strong statements and grand gestures. He’s provocative, often contrarian, and ambitious for good things.
He is no less ambitious in his poems, and no less provocative. Early in 2018 he told an interviewer that he had set himself the challenge “to write a genuinely devotional poetry. One that would not cease to be interpretable as poetry, but was still capable of a genuine expression of reverence…”
Piety, like married love, might be tolerated by poetry’s contemporary gatekeepers, but only in small portions. Wilson, however, following through on his challenge, observed no such moderation. He titled his third collection The Hanging God.
The title showcases Christ, though the poems inside range from the sacred to the profane. The poet is as preoccupied with a world needing redemption as he is with its Redeemer. The opening poem tells us: “And see, and see, into the dark, / Where spoiled wants and needs ferment; / Or that strange park / Where guilt still loiters, old and bent.”
Half of the volume’s fifty-six poems fall into two remarkable sequences. Each contains fourteen poems. The first sequence, “Wiped Out,” traces the stations of a doomed and sordid love affair; the second follows the traditional Stations of the Cross.
It’s difficult to talk about “Wiped Out” without dropping spoilers, and that would be criminal because the revelations are so artfully plotted. The sequence shows the versatility of the sonnet form, covering material and characters straight out of down-luck country music. Anyone who picks up the book expecting a novena in verse will be shocked by the bedroom and barroom language. But it’s perfectly measured to tell, as the narrator puts it, “The lust and lies from which I’d built my love.” The story moves forward on the strength of the lust and lies, and every sonnet conveys the force of both. Enough said.
Wilson’s second sequence, his Via Crucis, is the proving ground for his ambitions. The traditional fourteen Stations mark a well-worn way, already mapped in verse by poets such as Paul Claudel and Padraic Colum and in prose by literary saints from John Henry Newman to Karol Wojtyla. Any new rendering must weather comparison to these—and also overcome readers’ memories of cringeworthy “Living Stations” offered on Lenten Fridays by parochial school kids. It’s a big job.
Wilson’s sequence succeeds both as poetry and devotional expression. In one sense, his Stations could not be more traditional. All track the meter and rhyme of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, the Latin hymn customarily used for the devotion. But the language here is ours, and Wilson moves from images of that ancient cruelty to instances of cruelties more modern: a bullied child, a woman mocked at the pool, and even an “old pervert” in prison beaten bloody by his cellmates. Christ’s third fall is a typological fulfillment of the Old Testament “falls” of Adam and David—yet also an anticipation of our own failures today. Wilson’s language is strong, but never mawkish or maudlin. Devotional poetry in our idiom is difficult to calibrate, as many (if not most) North Americans lack models for the display of religious affection. With his “Stations,” Wilson seems to have found a poetic voice for us strangers at prayer in a strange land.
“Some Will Remember You,” another of his poems on religious themes, is a masterpiece in five movements. It covers the last days and afterlife of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). The poem’s movements are distinguished by shifts in meter and rhyme. It begins with two sections in blank verse, followed by quatrains of rhymed tetrameter, then a section of rhymed pentameter, and finally a stunning two-beat litany of the saint’s titles:
And holy martyr,
Of reason and choice,
A converted heart …
The modulation from section to section moves the drama forward in a way reminiscent of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” and Auden’s memorial to Yeats. It’s a risky business, but Wilson’s execution is worthy of these models—and worthy of his subject. Other, shorter poems present vignettes of the polite cruelties, infidelities, and moral discomforts of suburban life. Narrative poems, both sacred and profane, are a particular strength of this collection. I confess a slight preference for the profane, but only slight, and perhaps only because I am a child of my age.
By the standards of that age, James Matthew Wilson’s work is transgressive. As he succeeds, he expands the range of legitimate expression in poetry. That is both provocative and ambitious.