Some Permanent Things, Second Edition
By James Matthew Wilson.
Wiseblood Books, 2022.
Paperback, 162 pages, $15.

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl.

During an interview a few years back, James Matthew Wilson was asked what he meant by the “good,” a fitting question for his book of poems The Strangeness of the Good. His answer is far from sentimental when he affirms the “goodness” of being, a word he uses in a way far removed from dictionary definitions. For Wilson, the “good” is both “existential” and “metaphysical” and abides in the Christian affirmation that “God is indeed the Good of all time.”

His answer is philosophical and theological when he explains that “being” is the principal term for reality in the Christian tradition and that the poet’s job is to be attentive to “being.” The “good” is moral mystery but is also the “goodness” that abides at the heart of things as created, or what he philosophically calls an “ontological affirmation of the goodness of being… situated in the receptivity and perceptivity of reality [rather than a mere] assertion of feelings.” Then this: “[To affirm] the goodness of all things with a lazy sentiment helps no one and leads us to lie to ourselves.”

For Wilson, then, the best poems are seasoned reflections that develop in waves and “become” informed by faith, which mellows and matures in the process of “being” and develops into a certain kind of dramatic wonderment called “becoming.”

Therein lies the “art.”

With that in mind, “the art of being” and “the art of becoming,” Wilson has retained the first edition title to this second edition of Some Permanent Things. The “Preface” is worth considering since it is less a “preface” and more a “defense” of what a reader will find in the collection. The first edition appeared in 2014 and is a gathering of poems published in the years prior. For example, “Four Verse Letters” appeared in 2010 as a chapbook.

This second edition is a book of 145 pages with 61 poems in four sections, which contains all the poems of the first edition. At the same time, according to Professor Wilson, this new edition eliminates “unnecessary obscurities of form and meaning that seemed to . . . behold the worst excesses of poetic modernism while retaining whatever good that more recent rupture has done for the techniques of the art form.”

What’s further suggestive are the words in the title that resonate in conservative circles since they are treasures that sanctify us, ancient faiths we hold to in this unsettled modern world. Those treasures are principles, too. They are first things, eternal verities, one of which is a belief in the moral imagination, which stands in stark opposition to the diabolical imagination. It is the power of ethical perception that strides beyond the barriers of private experience and momentary events and is best exercised in poetry that aspires to convey a religious spirit.

If a volume of poetry passes across my desk with the title Some Permanent Things, as a reader I’m prepared to read an homage to poems in good taste, the offspring of a warm heart and clear understanding which grows into permanence. Thus, what appears in the beginning will have been averted by the ending, which argues that what also appears at the beginning of the collection might appeal to the modern mind but will, as the poetry cycle develops, be repudiated.

Consider Part I, which bears the title “The Violent and the Fallen” and the opening poem “The Mishawaka Cruisers,” an incidental moment in which, on a summer night, cruisers loudly make their way around a measured circuit. The poem is in quatrains and would appeal to any reader belonging to that cadre of what Kenneth Keniston once called “the uncommitted; alienated youth in America” and in which the greatest thrill might be “an unknown batch of girls with beer” and with long legs and wearing cut-offs. It’s a dramatic scene in which “boys’ hearts pound with want and weakness.” Life is vacant, bleating boredom, but the speaker believes he has a place to go and someone to meet, unlike the restlessness of the cruisers, who symbolize his “dread of the bare, the incomplete.”

Around him are those who are ”fallen” and from whom he escapes when a “gap” forms in the line of “cruisers,” and he turns right “off the main drag.” 

Unlike those fallen, he has a place to go and someone to meet.

What the place is and who the someone is are ambiguities. Yet, in terms of “permanent things,” one can assume the choice to turn off the main drag will make all the difference in the world, especially in the process of “becoming.”

It is not trite to suggest that this youthful poet is in the process of becoming, but what he will become remains to be seen. He is on the margins of moral relativity and has yet to turn his reflection to the permanent things.

Turn, then, to “At Father Mac’s Wake,” a long meditative poem dated 1987, Saint Thomas Aquinas Church. To read the poem is to follow a process in which the speaker recalls from memory his violent attacks on all that Father Mac represented and his vow never to kneel down in that church again. But as he “reads” the attacks against the faith in his own memory and at the good priest’s wake, “violent” as they might have been, they were the signs of a last attack “before defeat.”

Is the phrase potentially important? It is as if, in the process of “becoming,” the speaker in the poem is poised on the edge of identifying himself with the sacred good itself. Will this transformation, however, incorporate the sacred into the content of that transformation, his “becoming?”

It is a turn, we should note, which progresses incrementally to the title poem in this section, “Some Permanent Things.”

There are three stanzas with the first two spiritually depressed in their catalog of things sans ethical perception on the part of the speaker. However, the third stanza recites a change by announcing that the “occasional citizen will hear a drum / Sounding with more than antique vibrancy.”

It is a spiritually fluid moment in the poem, but this aptly named “citizen” who wanders comes upon “an old flag in the collective attic.” It’s an emblem, of course, very plain, but has informed “every age’s violation, / Its crest grown true, more bloody, and more vatic.”

The ending word is not to be passed over since it is suggestive. The premise is best understood as the poet having become inspired to let his voice speak not as if he were “a scoundrel” to the “faith” but with the ultimate goal of reclaiming “some permanent things” from our collective consciousness and incorporating those sacred eternal verities into the “art of being” and the “art of becoming.”

He will not “become” a neurotic lamentable figure so frequent in modern confessional poetry.  The evidence of this “vatic” figure appears systematically in the following poems: “The New Life,” “A Prayer for Livia Grace,” and the concluding pair “A Note for Ecclesiastes” and “From the Trinity Capital.” In “A Note,”  for example, the poet argues that we are not here to consent to those “singular wits who see in naive lovers / . . . unhappy marriages” or the “fetid, fertile constancy of seasons” but to ask “for wisdom wise enough never to dare / To try to take the measure of our loss, / But only to say, once more and in fitting / Voice, that this one we loved, who was, is gone.”

In the final poem in this section, written for Hilary, and thus a love poem, the poet argues that some thoughts are sacramental and “can’t be unconcealed” or “to be lived without.” One such thought is the image of necessity called love:

. . . . your actual love and being

Have made their print so formal that I can

Neither think of a life without you nor

Quite think without your presence looming up:

Always your eyes beneath dark hair, your voice

Rising with singular certainty to greet

Me in the silent rooms of every city.

As the compendium of 61 poems develops in the remaining three sections, a repudiation of modernity continues. But at the same time, it begins to reckon with a certain maturity that confers upon the poetry the mystery and the vision of truth which own the “vatic” dimension of some permanent things, love being one and which is not mere sentimentality but which discerns and matures.

In a “Verse Letter to My Mother,” for example, he writes how even in the cold, dark months, he thinks “how [the] old conventions have helped [him] / In writing other verses . . . . [he needs] The gathered signs and markers of the past . . . . Nothing is made without conventions first.”

Conventions are permanent things, as are the winter thoughts of advent and the magisterial six poems that conclude Wilson’s compendium. Gone are the more familiar features of modernism and its “self-expression,” replaced by poems now rooted deeply in religious conventions, Catholic especially. And to read the poems in sequences is akin to entering church and paging the missal to locate oneself sacramentally.

There are four “liturgical” advent poems here with substance and tone that resonate with the quartets of Eliot. Here’s the concluding stanza to “The Fourth Sunday of Advent”:

Unworthy men received in love,
    Oh, fool, who falls on some great gift,
You know how grace waits just above
    When the dark hour seems adrift,
When the earth groans for rest, crowds shove
    In greed, and rude words spark a rift,
To show, even now, our peace is drawn
Beyond this crisp but anxious dawn.

I commented earlier in this review that the “waves” of these poems gather and accumulate until it’s clear that the “confessional” poems, in the beginning, have been repudiated, if not rebuked. They also gather and accumulate until they are replaced by the mystery of the good the reader will find at the end of the collection and the magisterial “The Feast of the Nativity,”

Yes, all these things present themselves, will cleave
Us with their differences, as if one world
Rebuked the other by its gaudy show.
But no.  It is the bared branch that buds green,
The soon-to-be-pierced hand that heals the ear,
The night frost now receives the infant’s cry,
And a poor belly sits down to its feast.

This is goodness aplenty abiding at the heart of things which abides in the liturgical calendar. Faith at one time violated and full of angst and unimaginative has in the “art of becoming” fastened itself to the permanent things, slow going and insecure as it might be, but in time become an expansive vision beautifully at home in these poems, well made and which gradually lead all of us to higher and greater mysteries.

Daniel James Sundahl is Emeritus Professor in English and American Studies at Hillsdale College where he taught for thirty-three years.

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