To Draw the Mortal Hours: On James Matthew Wilson’s “The Strangeness of the Good”

December 25, 2022   •   By Patrick Kurp

The Strangeness of the Good

James Matthew Wilson

EARLY IN THE COVID-19 lockdown, some of us sought solace in literary accounts of other epidemics, perhaps expecting to encounter a happy ending. Among others, we consulted Herodotus, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, Alessandro Manzoni, Elias Canetti, and William Maxwell. What we usually found was fear, suffering, death, and life-scarring memories. Even for survivors, there was little consolation. During those baffling months in 2020, James Matthew Wilson set out to document not history on the grand scale but the humbler experience of his family facing unprecedented public health and political crises. He writes as an academic, a husband and father, a prolific poet and scholar, a middle-aged, middle-class Midwestern American, and especially as a committed Roman Catholic.

Starting two days before St. Patrick’s Day (that is, on March 15) and concluding on the feast day of St. Paschal Baylón (May 17), Wilson composed “Quarantine Notebook,” 15 blank-verse poems of varying lengths published serially in the Catholic literary journal Dappled Things. Will winter end and spring return? It’s a question Midwesterners ask themselves each year, but rarely with more heightened urgency than in 2020. Now Wilson has collected his pandemic poems and others in The Strangeness of the Good. In his first “Quarantine” entry, he recounts a trip to buy mulch for the family garden:

            I take up rake and shovel,
Begin the small, familiar, yearly tasks
That after a long winter one must do
To overcome its slow decay, to greet
Old life’s new start, and ready all the house
For what may come that we cannot yet know.


Wilson’s tone throughout the poems, as the pandemic and lockdown deepen, is one of aloof attentiveness: life goes on. There’s no haranguing or shrill political sloganeering, nor is Wilson a conventionally confessional poet. He usually writes with rhyme and strict attention to meter, but here there’s a new and engaging conversational looseness. He digresses and shares domestic news like a chatty neighbor. His wife gives him a haircut. His kids watch Duck Soup. Wilson reads Matthew Arnold.

In his May 14 entry, the most philosophically dense in “Quarantine Notebook,” Wilson has a telephone conversation with his brother, who contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic and has recovered. His brother asks if Wilson “just write[s] about whatever happens / Around your house or in the yard?” The poet acknowledges that “[t]his working up quotidian life to poems / Just seems absurd” to his sibling, “who for his living / Will turn a dollar into something useful.” Wilson doesn’t counter with the accustomed artist-versus-philistine self-righteousness. In a sort of poetic apologia, Wilson says he “takes / The settled details of the ordinary / And sets them rhyming one against the other.” By these means, Wilson uncovers the extraordinary in the ordinary: “Until we see the mystery that was there / Persisting, yet transformed, as something new.” He suggests we see things freshly and give thanks, and he advises poets to do the same.

A question will occur to some: Can thoroughly secularized, even atheistic readers appreciate Wilson’s unapologetically Catholic verse? Can it be read strictly for its aesthetic virtues, deep and broad learning, philosophical heft, humor, emotional punch, and mastery of technique? Will non-Catholic readers be left out? Wilson proves the demographics irrelevant. Ask yourself: can non-Catholics read and appreciate Dante and Gerard Manley Hopkins? Wilson doesn’t write from behind the walls of a self-imposed ghetto. His preoccupations are catholic and never sanctimonious. Strangeness takes its title from the third of the five stanzas that make up “Through the Water.” Dante is the specter silently haunting many of these poems:

When winter settles in, and our skies darken,
   We take a trampled path by pond and wood,
And find beneath an arch of slumbering thorn
   Stray tufts of fur, a skull stripped of its hood,
Then turn and look down through the thickening ice
   In wonder at the strangeness of the good.


Those final lines should not be mistaken for rah-rah Pollyannaism. As Wilson recently told an interviewer: “To affirm the goodness of being is to accept that however strange, however awful in appearance things seem at times, there is an abiding mystery that calls for our steady contemplation and discernment. It calls for that especially when we do not initially feel it.” Wilson distinguishes two meanings of “good.” The first is the more familiar. He would call it sentimental. Wilson’s preferred meaning can be thought of as ontological. “Good Friday, 2013, Driving Northward” has potentially the most banal of premises: the speaker is driving home in the dark, having promised his wife he would arrive before the children wake. Somewhere in the Appalachians, the humblest of events occurs: dawn. Wilson likens it to “deep breathing underneath a blanket, / Where things declare themselves by being what they are within; / So much, it seems, that every blessed thing which comes to light / Stands forth to show its birth from that first fruitful wakefulness.” The poem concludes: “[A]ll is blessing, all is light.”   

Note the plainness of the language. Wilson invests familiar words, even clichés, with a renewed meaning: “every blessed thing,” literally, and “come to light.” Some will hear the voice of Yvor Winters, one of Wilson’s poetic forebears, throughout the collection, yet the sonnet “A Common Tongue” traces his linguistic preference for clarity and elegance not to his reading but to his family:

My family’s was a plain, laconic speech,
The sort intended never to impress
But, with a grudge at broken silence, reach
Its point and stop, if it could do no less.
Small wonder, then, that all extravagance
Should once have struck me with a blush of shame
And yet still drew my eyes as radiance
Wielded a power I sensed but could not name.
 
But wonderful indeed that, having known
Deep labyrinths and the colosseum of stars,
And even claimed their glory for my own,
I feel at last how gaudy excess mars
A line, and find a measured dignity
In that rude speech that was first given to me.


Wilson is never guilty of “gaudy excess,” the sort of purple poeticism too many poets still mistake for the default mode of verse. Readers from the Midwest in particular will hear familiar strains in Strangeness. Wilson revels in the American demotic without resorting to trash talk or the latest pop-culture patter. He speaks with “a measured dignity / In that rude speech that was first given to me.” A deeply, classically learned poet, he avoids using his scholarship to browbeat readers or impress us with his academic credentials. Learning and living are in balance. As he writes in his April 5 notebook entry:

Most of us look instead for news, or turn
To aging books whose pages leave a dust
Upon the fingers as they’re read once more,
As if to say that nothing lasts forever,
And even books will taste oblivion.


The epilogue to the “Quarantine Notebook,” dated May 17, 2020, strives to resolve some of the themes present from the start of the sequence — church, the natural world, the writer’s responsibilities, memory. Wilson approaches his conclusion with a spirit of reconciliation and respect for those unlike himself. He acknowledges that “[o]ur public life has been so far debased” but suggests that human concerns, the sanctity of private life and devotion to the ordinary, can bring us together in extraordinary times:

It’s been my pleasure to record such things,
My occupation, too, and honest study;
My wish: to open wide the welded doors
Of minutes, and to draw the mortal hours,
With their uncanny oddities and flukes,
Together as some whole — provisional,
No doubt, but also, in its vexing way,
Enduring.


¤


Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.