This week’s poem is by James Matthew Wilson, a professor of religion and literature at Villanova University, whose newest book of poetry is called The Hanging God and is available now. Here it is.
Sluggish with Pennsylvania summer rain
Slapping and splattering against the drive,
I sit, incapable of anything.
My daughter asked me, weeks ago, to write
A poem about Australia, and I
Agreed, but not with that clean kind of yes
That means itself, but with some other kind,
More like a groan of dread, my eyelids lowering.
What did she mean by that, Australia?
A drawing up of heavy chains from depths
Where they lay oxidizing and forgotten,
Whatever once was linked to their end vanished?
She’s heard the stories of my boyhood there;
The getting out of punishment, the cane
The headmaster would brandish left to idle,
Stood in a corner of his office, only
Because by cunning and selective silence
I dodged the visit that had been commanded.
The time I fed a neighbor boy wet sand,
Calling it chocolate. As the sound of grit
Between his teeth came from that just-closed mouth,
I asked him if he wanted any more,
And he said, yes—just that same kind of yes
I gave, as if the word “Australia”
Were sand now sifting just behind my tongue
And slowly growing round and rich with nacre.
Or was it not myself, but rather other
Things in their upside-down, pineapple strangeness?
The coming in from play outdoors to find
The lizard whose tail I had just whisked off
The week before, while sweeping the garage,
Caught frozen on the stairwell wall, its eyes
Locked on me, waiting for my hand to move,
Before it darted toward the green shag carpet
And disappeared. That other time, when hidden
In the back garden, absolutely hushed,
Concealed within a thorny, violet bush,
Knowing that, there, my brothers could not find me,
I looked down where my hand rest on a branch,
And found amid a thickened weave of web
The rounded, gashed hump of a redback spider.
A place where weird concocted creatures lived,
The kangaroos and platypuses, emus,
And not just lived, but wandered, defecating;
The platypus discharging as it swam
Along aquarium glass, then turned its back
And sank from sight within the dank green water;
The giant bird who ambled up to me,
Until I threw my seed down out of fear,
And watched it sweep its long neck down to feast,
While splattering its three-horned feet with waste.
I don’t know if she wants what I brought back
On purpose, wool clipped off a sheep at school,
The boomerang our next-door neighbor gave me,
Or what I could not mean to see, but saw;
What forced itself upon me with its oddness
As if to show that nature’s jerry-rigged,
Holding its giant bird head high with pride
To be so awkward and yet possible,
Defying expectations like the joey
That crawls its mother’s pelt to find her pouch.
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His poetry appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, The Hudson Review, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure,The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, National Review, and The American Conservative. He has published eight books, including The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition (CUA, 2017); the major critical study, The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood, 2015); a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things; and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Wilson is the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine, the series editor of Colosseum Books, of the Franciscan University at Steubenville Press, and also serves on the boards of several learned journals and societies. His most recent book is The Hanging God (Angelico, 2018).