Some Permanent Things
by James Matthew Wilson.
Wiseblood Books, 2014.
Paperback, 156 pages, $16.50.
James Matthew Wilson’s first full-length poetry collection explores how we might rediscover “permanent things” in a time of distraction, disruption, and disposability. His poems depict long-declining Rust Belt cities and cookie-cutter universities, but they also affirmmuch—love, family, beauty, faith, contemplation, friendship, sacrifice, the humble life well-lived. A professor in Villanova’s Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions, Wilson’s title echoes both T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk, and throughout his poems Wilson presents himself as carrying on the critical tradition of these Midwestern forebears.
Unlike Eliot, though, Wilson writes mostly in traditional poetic forms. In this collection are fine examples of sonnet and sestina; of dramatic monologue, imagined dialogue, and lyric; of rhymed and blank verse; of tetrameter, pentameter, and hexameter lines. Wilson moves from narrative to lyric description to philosophical reflection, often in the same poem. In his literary criticism, Wilson has argued against the contemporary assumption that traditional forms are limiting. This wide-ranging collection demonstrates his point. For Wilson, meter and rhyme are among the “permanent things.” Indeed, in his 2015 Wiseblood book The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, Wilson claims that meter “is the ground of poetry, as being is the ground of reality.”
Most of the poems in Part I take place in the post-industrial Midwest of Wilson’s youth, which he shows to be as Christ-haunted and poverty-stricken in its own ways as Flannery O’Connor’s South. Several poems are set in South Bend (and neighboring Mishawaka), a city that is home to the University of Notre Dame and over twenty Catholic parishes but which has never fully recovered from the Studebaker plant’s closing in 1963.
The collection’s opening poem takes us down a representative street: “Along three blocks of neon fast-food chains / The darkened panes of auto dealerships, / The Checks-Cashed, and the boarded Dollar Store.” In a gritty dramatic monologue, a balloon salesman describes his plight: “Then I gotta stand, a clown at the grocery / Until the sun has made my glasses steam and glare, / And I wish I could type or something. Who wants to be / A broken vendor day in, day out?” The best of these South Bend poems is “A View from the Studebaker Servants’ Quarters.” Here a “stone seraphim” near what was once a “bland / Garden for servants” echoes an Eden lost, a fall from grace. The poem is suffused by doubts that “stone angels” can “fill the role / Of resurrecting fearful miracles / From the tomb of three centuries’ industry.”
Another powerful poem from Part I is “At Father Mac’s Wake.” It begins as an elegy to Father Mac’s life of service: “how many had he seen, / Before him from the altar, before him in / The pews? And now this one, who had seen all, / Seen through the darkness of the sacraments, / Was seen, and still, and silent in a box.” But the poem is ultimately more of a conversion narrative. The focus shifts to how Wilson’s rebellion against his parents’ faith plays out at age twelve, when he is forced to attend Father Mac’s wake:
I pressed my mouth against the humid lacquer
Thick on the pew, and with that stealing cowardice
Augustine tells us of, I drove my bike key
Into the wood as if to carve and scrape
Insignia of my envy and impatience,
My boredom, bitterness, and fresh despair.
Wilson describes these carved marks as “signs of a last attack before defeat,” a last defiance before a return to faith. Visiting the parish in later years he sees “a bronze relief / Of Fr. Mac above a cross of keys,” suggesting that Father Mac’s wake was also a final act of service to the boy, a key to unlock a hardened heart. Throughout the collection, reflection grows out of such vividly rendered particulars. In a few poems, especially in section III, Wilson does tend toward abstraction, but this is surprisingly rare given his poetry’s philosophical and theological themes.
Spaced throughout the volume are four long verse letters addressed to Wilson’s parents and brothers. In these letters, Wilson deftly moves between philosophical reflection and scenes from his past. Human making is their unifying theme, the making of poems and furniture, of families and homes, of good communities and good lives. In “Verse Letter to My Mother,” Wilson remembers,
… I was sixteen (just)
And told you, as you drove me to the dentist,
That I was some imaginative genius
Who needed only time and solitude.
To which you said, “You also need experience.”
This advice grated on the young writer, but he came to see the wisdom of his mother’s words, to see that he needed not only rich life experiences but also, and more fundamentally, the inherited experience of the literary tradition, of his Catholic faith, and of his family. His mother is descended from Polish immigrants, and the verse letter meditates on the hard lessons she learned from her mother and grandmother and how she passed them on in tempered form to her sons. The letter is thus both a tribute to Wilson’s mother and a refutation of any simple myth of the solitary genius.
“Verse Letter to My Father” begins by describing a large, even unwieldy, desk that Wilson’s father built for him. It becomes a “crypt” for toys and models rather than a place to write or do his homework. Still, he takes the desk as a model of human making as a gift and a good. The letter moves on to stage a discussion between Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joseph de Maistre, and Edmund Burke on how human making can go astray, how it can be misled by “Shelleyean ambitions or by vice.”
The final poem in the collection, “Verse Letter to John,” finds Wilson writing his older brother from his first academic post at a southern state school, a “glassy education factory” surrounded by the sprawl of strip malls, apartments, and McMansions where “lot by lot old farmers sell their fields / To found new suburbs in the sand expanses.” Here students have come to “mold themselves / Into the faithful representatives / Of the new market as it melts to air.” Remembering Kirk’s resignation from his academic position, Wilson wonders if he can get students to contemplate the “permanent things” in such a place:
As the hour ends and they herd off to Business
Aps. I’m left with my textbooks, to discern
If shoring rhetoric against these ruins
Amounts to just a little phlegm or bile
Unsettled in the beast that welcomes it …
Still, Wilson ultimately concludes that he and his students are not entirely dissimilar, and this tempers his earlier criticisms of them, if not of their university, which in its fragmentation resembles that other poetic wasteland alluded to in these lines. Like his students, Wilson too has had to find a way to fit his “doctrines and desire / To those most practical of ends,” to making a living in the twenty-first century.
The penultimate section of Some Permanent Things is titled “Discipline and Desire.” This title is drawn from the poem “The Second Sunday of Advent,” in which an Advent calendar teaches Wilson’s daughter not only patience and restraint but also to savor each day’s chocolate. The Augustinian theme informs other poems in this section, such as the perfectly executed sestina “A Prayer for Livia Grace,” which begins with the line “There’s little room left in this house for poetry,” a likely gripe for a writer with a newborn, but ends with a prayer for disciplined openness: “May I have more of this child, less poetry.”
This theme is indeed at the heart of Some Permanent Things, running through “At Father Mac’s Wake,” the verse letters, and many other poems. Throughout this fine collection Wilson seeks to recover an ancient lesson of Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, one so widely forgotten today that it has become countercultural—the need to discipline desire in order to find a truer freedom and a richer happiness in “permanent things,” the affordances that inherited forms can provide in that pursuit.
Steven Knepper is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Military Institute. His essays and reviews have appeared in Telos, Commonweal, The Hedgehog Review, The Robert Frost Review, The Cormac McCarthy Journal, and Studies in American Culture. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Modern Age, Pembroke Magazine, SLANT, and Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry.