Fabulist Walter Wangerin has been writing sonnets on the sly. But with the publication in April of A Miniature Cathedral and Other Poems (Harper & Row), fans who fed on The Book of the Dun Cow’s mythic prose will get to taste Wangerin’s passion for form—rhyme schemes, meters, and acrostics.
The poems, the earliest of which date from August 1967, are evocative and sensual: “I march to trumpets and endorse the idiot / Confusion of snare drums when I perform; / Trombones are the tide behind, and women giddy at / The slashed red of my howling uniform.” And when, as in his short stories, Wangerin speaks as or about a child, he finds his most authentic voice. The adult poet and the occasional excursion into black dialect are less accessible, but the child is universal: “Had you, too, / For lies to bite Fels Naphtha soap—and chew?” And all this framed in classic forms.
“I like to do it,” says Wangerin about the challenge of poetic forms. “My son threads the opposition on the basketball court, like a squirrel slips past their knees, then lays the ball precisely where it ought to be, on an imaginary shelf at the ten-foot rim, where it sits one still, sarcastic second, then drops. And Matthew, after such a leap—he laughs. This is the same laughter that I laugh silently after the poem that dropped well. The sounds of words falling, with their senses, into an impossible harmony new in that poem, though instructed by old patterns—that simply delights me.”
Granted that a poet can find as much joy in a well-thrown word as a child can in a well-tossed ball; but there is little joy in this poetry. Readers who have followed the careers of Chaunticleer and Pastor Orpheus have noted Wangerin’s dark vision (see “Wince with Wonder,” CT, Dec. 12, 1986, p. 60). In the epilogue to this collection, Wangerin addresses the pious seventeenth-century poet George Herbert: “You praise his Presence, George; I’ll prod / Around and rummage in his Absence.”
Apparently Wangerin wants to divide up the theo-poetical turf to avoid reblazing a trail by optimists already well trod. Echoing Isaiah 45:7 (he often echoes Isaiah), Wangerin writes: “Forget almighty / God, who maketh weal and woe together, / Indiscriminately, just as flighty / As a pigeon dropping slops wherever / Wind and whim decide.”
Whether Wangerin’s God is absent or indiscriminate matters little, for this poet’s iris admits only the shadows: a suitor afraid to speak; a husband displaced by an infant; a parent bereft of a child; a brother linked by blood to an institutionalized pyromaniac. Even a summer’s-end thunderstorm becomes a threat of personal doom as “The lightning struts / On crooked spider’s legs comes trembling cross the fields / The body black above it.… Crush this skull, be done! Be done!” And his graphic poems of the Incarnation—of the fetal Christ kicking in the womb, of Mary delivering Jesus “on her knees,” pushing “him head-downward to the scalloped earth”—are layered between tales of dying foxes fleeing the hunt and wolves tricked and killed. His nativity hymn four times echoes the traditional text, Hodie Christus Nautus Est: “In terra canunt angeli” (On earth the angels sing); but it is bitterly reversed by the coda, “Et lamentantur archangeli” (And the archangels lament).
Never one to stint on words, Walter Wangerin’s poetry is, like his prose, abundant, rich, and dark. These poems will provide ample insights into his melancholia. They may, however, provide fewer insights into life and the universe, where (I suspect) the archangels sing more Glorias than laments.
“Listen! When Mike my brother made a fire Of bedsheets in our room with matches he Was not supposed to have, I knocked him down;
I broke his nose; and while he scrambled round
My back like a fat spider, my one free
Hand beat the flames and we become a choir
Of little curses one against the other,
And when the sheets were black I had become
His savior. I saved him. Since then he’s slept in some
Clinic and eaten clinic food and Father
Said he’s as well as can be expected what
With the circumstances which are that he’s not
Well at all but insane and he’s my brother—
—Walter Wangerin, Jr.
By David Neff.
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