These days, the turning of a new year makes me think of old years more than of the year ahead. Where have they gone?
Ten years ago, in my Stranger in a Strange Land column for the January/February 2010 issue of Books & Culture, I wrote about a book of poems by Paul Willis (a novelist and essayist as well, but first and foremost a poet). Willis is a writer I greatly admire who has become a friend. Poets, as you may have noticed, are thick on the ground, but the chances that you regularly read any particular poet are quite small. In a survey conducted early in the history of B&C, more than 50 percent of the readers who responded said they had no interest in poetry. And yet people keep writing the stuff, and publishers keep publishing it, and readers who do value poetry keep reading it (though reader A, reader B, and reader C may well have tastes that hardly overlap at all).
In this particular column, I took up a book that has at its heart our improbable hope for the resurrection of the dead (“our,” I say, hoping that you share it). The title of the column was the title of the book itself: “Rosing from the Dead.” Here it is, rescued from oblivion (for the moment, at least):
Paul Willis, whose name you’ll recognize if you have been reading this magazine for a while, has a new collection of poems, just published by WordFarm: Rosing from the Dead. (Two of the poems in this volume first appeared in Books & Culture, and the title poem was published here after first appearing in Christianity and Literature.) The first poem in the book, “When You Say,” begins by listening, at once attentively and with a certain ironic distance, to the way we talk:
When you say
my name has come up
several times, I hear it
gasp, emerging hopelessly
for air, then
sinking into voiceless ocean.
This first stanza is funny, self-deprecating, and comfortably mundane, taking a stock phrase literally and playing with it, the way many cartoons in The New Yorker do. A familiar scenario is implicit here. The “you” is a generalized figure, a superior of some kind, we might suppose. But the second stanza departs from the mundane:
When you say my
name reminds you of certain tactile
peculiarities, husks of corn or a lost
thread of glass beads, I see it caught
between your palms like a stray moth,
murdered by your chance applause.
Instead of taking as its point of departure a familiar scenario from the world outside the poem, the second stanza takes as its point of departure the first stanza, playing a mildly surreal variation on it. As many poems do, “When You Say” is teaching us how to read it. This stanza is a reminder of the self-contained nature of the poem. The valence of the “you” is more personal than it was in the first stanza, but the tone is detached, and the image of the speaker’s name—“like a stray moth, / murdered by your chance applause”—is self-consciously absurd. The murder is bloodless.
Some readers will be tempted to stop at this point. But hang on. The next stanza, while offering another variation on the first, also changes direction yet again:
When you say my name
was shared by forebears on your
mother’s side, I feel my life
already lived, spilled out perhaps
in Pickett’s charge and only
gathered up in you.
There is still a touch of the comic in the poet’s lament, but the register of this stanza is different. There is a personal connection between the poet and the “you” he addresses: nothing detached about that “gathered up in you.”
In the concluding stanza, which departs from the pattern of the first three by omitting the lament, the connection between “I” and “you” deepens to sweet intimacy. Here, for the first time, you don’t say something about my name; rather, you say my name:
When you say my name, just
say, just whisper it in my left ear,
I know that it is yours to give, that I
can take it back again but want
to leave it rising on the wind between us,
searching out a breath, a shape, a history.
The last two lines are not obscure, but they are mysterious. They send us back to the poem itself, wondering how we got here in just four short stanzas, and outward from it to our own lives.
The first section of Rosing from the Dead, “Faith of Our Fathers,” concentrates on childhood memories and family ties. The poems in the second section, “Higher Learning,” are mostly occasioned by the poet’s experience as a professor of English at Westmont College. And the concluding section, “Signs and Wonders,” gathers poems on the natural world. Willis writes many different kinds of poems, as a leisurely reading through this fine book will attest, but much of what is distinctive about his voice comes through in that opening poem, “When You Say”: the humor, the self-deprecation, the attentive listening, the taste for flights of fancy, the leaping (as Robert Bly calls it) from the mundane to the strangely resonant.
Poems entitled “Bifocals” and “Trifocals” are cases in point. Here is the first:
Now I live in divided and distinguished
worlds, joined by an equatorial smudge,
the common murk of middle earth.
Now I learn to bring my book under
my nose, to bow my head in reverence
to observe my footing on the stairs.
Now the drawing down of blinds,
the narrowing of near and far,
The clarifying closure of these unhinged
doors of perception, cleansed but cloistered.
I admire the wit and restraint of this, the way the poet has taken a common experience and made something artful of it. His memento mori is unmissable but comes with no huffing and puffing. So too the concluding stanzas of “Trifocals,” where
I glance above my rims to see
The hills, their ceanothus bloom,
Only to have them disappear.
My help comes from closing my eyes
And thinking then of silver coins,
Cool against the lids, the lashes.
Don’t misread that last stanza. Hopefulness, implicit here for those who look to the life to come, is explicit elsewhere. But without ever striking a pose, with no self-dramatized conviction that it is his appointed task to deliver the unpalatable truth about How It Is, Willis tells us again and again: remember you must die.
Speaking of death, and hope, we should look at the title poem (Hanna, mentioned therein, is the poet’s daughter; the book is dedicated to her and her brother, Jonathan, both now grown):
We are on our way home
from Good Friday service.
It is dark. It is silent.
“Sunday,” says Hanna,
“Jesus will be rosing
from the dead.”
It must have been like that.
A white blossom, or maybe
a red one, pulsing
from the floor of the tomb, reaching
round the Easter stone
and levering it aside
with pliant thorns.
The soldiers overcome
with the fragrance
and Mary at sunrise
mistaking the dawn-dewed
Rose of Sharon
for the untameable Gardener.
This poem reminds me of Walker Percy’s essay “Metaphor as Mistake” (in The Message in the Bottle). A child’s mistake makes Easter new for us. May we share that child’s faith, unashamed, trusting.
In “Filius,” looking back at his own childhood and family and in particular considering what traits and predispositions he inherited from his father on the one hand and his mother on the other, Willis says that, some months before his birth, his mother contracted polio. She was bedridden for almost a year, and only rarely could she hold her new son. “To this day,” Willis writes, “I am not too good at hugging people. / But I can hold them in this poem.”
We can be very glad that he was able to hold them in a poem, and the model train that “hums to itself in the dark / like the plastic engine my father / holds to cut our hair,” and “the cathedral shade of Cottonwood Spring, / slow water sliding down the face of an altar / into a thick, grassy nave,” and a morning when the children were still at home—“Some years from now, my bones aching, I will want to wake up again on this ordinary / morning of fog”—and the “twelve grave persons” named Willis appearing in the Dictionary of National Biography, including the poet’s favorite, an 18th-century antiquary, “who gave away / his vast estate to whim and charity, bit by bit, and died at last / a ragged beggar,” of whom Leslie Stephen wrote: “He was a great oddity, and knew nothing of mankind.”
In the decade since this appeared, Willis has continued to publish books of poems (and other sorts of books as well). I hope some of you will be inclined to look into those. And if you do, I’d love to hear from you. All best wishes for the new year.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.