New life, new voices in Catholic letters

That such poetry, as found in recent collections by Ryan Wilson and Mark Amorose, is being published now should tell us that literary culture is far better off than it was four decades ago.

Ryan Wilson’s “After the Sonogram”, begins

Within you, now, a shadow feeds
On everything you are, and do.
Now every actions scatters seeds
Across the future’s fields, and you

Will watch what isn’t, come to be.

Tautly and perceptively written in cross-rhymed tetrameter quatrains, rich in figures that drive us to an encounter with the slow coming into being of new life within his wife’s womb, the poem by itself suffices to announce a return of craft and spiritual depth to American poetry. This becomes all the clearer if we pair it with Mark Amorose’s sonnet, “First Sight”. Amorose describes the “world of wonder” to which he bears witness, attending primarily to man’s technological mastery of the physical world, before he turns to another kind of machine. At the metrical turn from octave to sestet, his attention turns from the external world to the interior one where dwells an unborn daughter, Eleanor:

And here you are. All other wonders wane.
You wiggle on a pixel-painted screen:
two-five-toed kicking feet are clearly seen;
two hands that flutter by a face are plain.

Amorose’s voice is plainer, more prosaic, the style less taut and dense, and yet has all the finely metered realization of Wilson’s lines.

Thirty years ago, one would have had to look with care to find books of poetry that demonstrate not just fluency but mastery of meter, of the true craft of poetry. I choose the time advisedly, for by the late-nineteen-eighties, at least some contemporary American poets were returning to the metrical practices that constitute poetry as something other than—something more than—well wrought prose. But that return was piecemeal, uneven, and even bashful, with many of the strongest advocates of meter—or form, as it has long been called—merely asking for literary culture’s permission to include such practices among others in their work.

Wilson and Amorose show we are long past the age of uncertain pleas. Their poems are written not as if the authors themselves were oblivious to the experimental disruptions of literary history that rendered, for a time, much American poetry discontinuous, fragmentary patches of typography and designated genuine verse practice an antique. Rather, both these poets show us that, no matter how badly an art form has been treated by one’s ancestors, a rich recovery always remains possible and so does a genuine advance.

Wilson’s book in particular shows us that the mere struggle to recover such practices by engaging the modernist conventions of the recent past is in itself fruitful, that to move beyond the obscurantist and destructive tendencies of modernist poetry is not necessarily to ignore or set by its sometime achievements. Amorose’s work, I will show, in contrast does risk doing just that and gives us, in consequence, a book in some ways strengthened and in some ways weakened by its strident rejection of modernism’s frequently errant course.

I begin with these two poems, however, for another reason than their fine displays of metrical virtuosity. In Joseph Bottom’s An Anxious Age (2014), he observes that the young men and women who have sought to rebuild Catholic culture after the depredations and abuses of the later decades of the twentieth century have fairly thin foundations on which to work. With so many rites, traditions, and devotional practices having been lost in the years after the Second Vatican Council, Bottom suggests, it sometimes seems that Catholic natalism, its insistence on the evil of abortion and the necessity of an openness to the goodness of life, life’s treatment as a sacred gift, is the only remaining direct point of contact between cult and culture. Abortion is a grave sin, Catholic moral doctrine teaches, and opposition to it seems to be the one sign in daily life where faithful Catholics reveal themselves as set apart from our secular age. Bottom worries at the thinness of such a foundation: can a culture, or as is sometimes said these days, an “identity,” really be rebuilt merely out of opposition to one a grave evil? However unpromising, Bottom’s description sounds correct.

It should be unsurprising, then, that these two books announce themselves as by Catholic authors most pointedly in two poems founded on reverence before the mystery of unborn life. Just as their metrical fluency instances a renewal of practices once thought abandoned, so the substance of their imaginations testifies to two very different efforts to restore to our literature a Catholic vision. From there, the two authors diverge, providing very different, in some ways competing, but nonetheless compelling, case studies in how the serious Catholic writer might practice the craft of poetry in our time.

Both these books are guided by a strong narrative, a pilgrimage through the world, and Amorose’s begins just where most western Catholics finds themselves in our day, in small company at the center of a secular city. In the “Quebec” of the Silent Revolution, Amorose and his bride wander through its tourist trap, where “sellers of souvenirs administer / the sacraments of our despairing days.” With the other tourists, they make their visits to the centuries’ old churches of the province, and feel the contrast between the world outside, where “sunlight breaks through hedonism’s haze,” and the interior “windows in a multi-colored blaze.” “Outside,” he concludes, “the world winds down its final phase,” but, meanwhile, “the God we crucified calls us to prayer.” This sonnet and those that follow depict a mind intransigent before a culture that has entered into decadence and decline, a mind which holds fast in a faith it knows is “under siege.”

These are not theological poems that enter very far into the mysteries of faith, nor for the most part devotional poems addressed to God. They are rather tableaux that struggle to define the predicament outlined in “Quebec”. Amorose critiques the “new learning,” as it once, however dubiously, was called, for reducing our vision of creation to a “godless outer space” that “originated in a cosmic sneeze.” He wishes God’s vengeance on that “apostate,” the state of California, that it may slide into the Pacific. He critiques the saccharine dilution of the mystery of angels, when we think of them as soft “feathers” rather than taking angels for what they are, “fire / acetylating blue before your eyes.”

Amorose’s poems are at their strongest when they capture the existential trap of the faithful in a faithless world, where he encourages us to draw on the example of persecuted saints to

Hold fast the Faith. Set swords about the Creed.
And call on Athanasius in your need.

But he is often compelling in his poems describing the Christian’s kind of victory, which is the endurance of suffering in a world gone awry and one’s capacity to bring new life to the world despite the age’s attempts to “banish” them “as a public enemy.” A sequence of such poems is followed by a group of light, satirical “skirmishes,” and the volume concludes with “Anthems,” poems that follow the Christian’s life from Easter to Christmas, but which culminate in the desert near Amorose’s home in Tucson. In all these poems a fluent clarity of versification impresses. The introductory poem to “Skirmishes,” for instance, unfolds with an almost geometric symmetry:

The pelast was a light-armed skirmisher
who, like an irritating little bur,
got caught inside your clothing in the field:
not for him, the hoplite’s heavy shield.

In poetry the peltast’s counterpart
eschews the serious poet’s ponderous art:
he flings off verses from his little harp;
but though his weapon’s light, its point is sharp.

Such expression is direct, with a minimum of connotation and a restrained wit. It should remind us of the native plain style of the sixteenth-century classics of English poetry, by which I mean Saint Thomas More, Barnabe Googe, Edward Dyer, and others who deserve to be better remembered and more often read than they are. With them, a simplicity of style and rhythm complements expository, generally didactic, statement. And yet, Amorose’s poems have also a quotidian sincerity that practitioners of the sixteenth century did not and which comes to us, in part, from the poetry of the nineteenth-century and in part from the renewed colloquial plain style of many contemporary metrical poets, such as Robert Crawford, A.M. Juster, and Timothy Steele. This, it must be said, can sometimes become a weakness, where the poem’s statement is well executed but leaves no remainder on which we might linger in contemplation. The risk of didacticism in art is always that it feels like a kind of pre-digestion.

That such poetry is being published now should tell us that literary culture is far better off than it was four decades ago. Further, that such virtuosity has been made a vehicle for an unsentimental, thoroughly religious sensibility that does not turn away from the spiritual combat inevitable to life in this world suggests that contemporary poetry is regaining its capacity for a seriousness that extends beyond the everyday secular preoccupations of our time.

I must reserve the highest praise, however, for this first book by Ryan Wilson, which I consider a most astonishing debut, one that shows the poet a master of the complexity and formal subtlety found in those great and anguished poets of the twentieth century, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and especially Robert Lowell. Poetry’s union of meter, metaphor, and memory’s mysterious depths is what has always made it the chief art form of every culture, and Wilson’s work testifies to its power to lead us into the darkness of human experience and to let us linger there in exploration.

Like Amorose’s volume, Wilson’s has a loose but sure narrative structure that adds up to a kind of pilgrimage, one that bears a kinship with the lives of Augustine and Pascal. The poems of Part I explore the awkwardness of our alienation from the world into which we nonetheless are born. As Pascal remarked, this sense of unbelonging is what first stirs the soul in its search for truth and redemption. “Man at the Party,” the first poem in the book, establishes this with pained brilliance. The narrator senses acutely he does not belong among the revelers of a boy’s birthday party, and yet he observes the manners of all present no less acutely and upon which he can pronounce,

These smiles held up, like eggs we mustn’t break:
Oh, it’s a fearful doom to which man’s fated.

Only in a memory of the birthday boy himself, out in a field, do we see what our lives would look like could we enter into the unconscious peace of being of a true homeland:

As he comes into our fold, this boy of ten,
Whom I saw alone, at swordplay in the meadow,
Smiling now with manly acumen,
Done thrusting at his magnifying shadow.

His eye for the alien is put to lighter, but no less perceptive, use in “Goths” and “For a Dog,” both of which somehow manage to be precise of imagery without being dully literal, and affecting without lapsing into sentimentality.

The second part of Wilson’s book is composed of poems that register the felt presence of some stranger among us, that is, a spiritual

depth that does not fit into our everyday life and demands admission into our sense of reality. “Authority” is one of two longer narratives in the volume, detailing the misfortunes of a couple whose electricity and lives slowly cease to function as they find, over time, post-it notes with “LIAR” written on them. “Cryptid” invites us to view such strange happenings not only as occasion for terror, but an invitation to awe before a reality that is always more veined with depths and riches than we can perceive. And “Xenia” defines the spirit of the book as a whole: a stranger whom we could never expect and do not much like moves into your house, makes himself at home as he inconveniences you, and forces you to open yourself up to the world with humility and hospitality.

The poems gathered in Part III pursue this kind of encounter with “the stranger world,” sometimes literally, as in “L’estraneo,” where an American, fleeing the failure of his marriage at home, feels as if he is being followed, and then

I saw a face I recognized, although
To say I recognized it isn’t quite true.
It was a face I knew I’d seen before,
A man’s face, nothing much about it special,
Except it found a kind of answer within me
When not one of the other faces did,
An answer like a note subsumed in its chord,
Like someone kneeling down in front of a stream
In which his own reflection’s waiting for him,
And has been waiting, though he didn’t know it,
And will be there still, even when he’s gone.

In “Ultima Thule,” the “pale perfection” of “ice-fields” in winter bespeak a world of aesthetic simplicity, but the mind discovers therein analogical depths, so that the field foreshadows heaven:

And the land grows silent, hushed by a snapping wind
Sweet as the peace we’re promised in the end.

But the poem does not rest here. The world rarely means only one thing, but rather layers itself with ironies, tensions, and mysteries. And so, the verse form shifts:

       But underneath the snows
That would erase a man’s footstep, or his trail
Of blood, with the worm, the maggot, and the snail
Something horrible grows

The next poem, “Inner Harbor,” explores the way in which the things of this world are always their own particular selves but conceal within them universal and allegorical meaning, such that, for the poet, “Everywhere you go is Baltimore.” That poem ends with the image of “The empty boats glow with the water-lights,” which constitutes an allusion to Wallace Stevens’ great poem, “The Idea of Order at Key West.” The mystery of reality is just this: the material and literal is always going beyond itself, signifying something more, so that particular and universal, concrete and abstract, material and spirit, sacred and secular, are always interpenetrating one another. Such was the lesson of such seventeenth century metaphysical poets as George Herbert and John Donne. Wilson reclaims their legacy as a successor to the midcentury modernists who have clearly given shape to his poetic voice.

The book’s fourth and final section returns to scenes of certain meaning: those moments where the sensations of being out of place in the world, and yet haunted by a stranger whose face hints at something we know but cannot quite recall, come somewhat closer to resolution. “Source,” for instance, traces a hike through the woods to a river that will remind one immediately of another poet once lost in a dark wood:

      I tried what paths I found.
Root-stumbled, overgrown, or wide and clear,
All of them got me lost, but it seemed the sound
Boomed loudest in the ear

When I’d given up all hope
Of getting to the source.

The poem’s conclusion suggests indeed it is the tradition of Dante and not the romantic emersion in nature found, say, in Ralph Waldo Emerson, that we find—at last—at the source of our experience and of all being:

       I wasn’t river sound
And wasn’t river either, truth be told.
I was a man alone, too pleased I’d found
The water aimless and cold.

The confusions of our existence are not to be dissolved within either the void or Emerson’s pantheistic monism. We do not solve them at all. We rather recognize our place within an order greater than ourselves and stare in wonder at it as no creation of our own but as creation itself, the whole of reality to which we belong. Quietly inverting Rilke’s articulation of the demands of art, of absolute beauty to compel us to resemble it, Wilson’s “In the Harvest Season” concludes

You cannot change your life. Give up; give thanks.

The answer to alienation and restlessness is to recognize its source in what we are not, what we cannot make, but to which we belong.

This narrative from estrangement to the source is interrupted by two sets of what Wilson calls “Intermundia,” one containing translations of Horace and the second translations of Baudelaire. Wilson thereby lays claim to a Catholic vision that Amorose’s book longs for but fears may be impossible in our time. He suggests that the equipoise and golden style of classical Latin, and the shadowy, anguished, but no less classical French of the modern age are equally his inheritance. Amorose’s account of the Catholic’s alienation in the world is primarily a historical one: if the age were not so hostile, we would be at home in lives of devotion. Wilson’s command of Horace, Baudelaire, and the modern literary tradition suggests that our alienation is not historical but spiritual. No matter the age, our souls will remain restless until they penetrate the depths of things to their source in the creative giving forth of the divine.

City Under Siege: Sonnets and Other Verses

by Mark Amorose
Angelico Press, 2017
Paperback, 84 pages

The Stranger World
by Ryan Wilson
Measure Press, 2017
Hardcover, 104 pages

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About James Matthew Wilson 25 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).

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