Reading a poem/A poet reading

By Stuart Johnson

wimpleDavidson College, down the road from me in North Carolina, just announced that its alumnus Charles Wright will be appearing on campus next month, so I pulled his 2014 collection, Caribou, off the shelf. For those who don’t keep track, Wright is the current US Poet Laureate. I have been reading the poems in Caribou with the thought that Wright’s appearance is likely to be for a reading of his work, and the poems in that book are the likely choices.

I’ll be honest: although I am a poetry reader, poetry readings leave me in the dust. The words fly by just too quickly. I am still puzzling over the first line when the poet comes to the end.

One of the poems in Caribou, “The Childhood of St. Thomas,” can teach the value of patience as we listen to the poem. I will walk through the poem, noting what is obscure or mysterious about it, but we will see that the poem’s conclusion has a wonderful clarity. If we can allow ourselves to get lost for a bit without becoming irritable and insisting on facts and figures, we can experience the poem, not as a statement of what the poem “means,” but rather as an experience the poet creates for us. (The poem is copied at the right as an image file so as to best show the form, the indentations.)

Wright poemThe nun of the poem appears to provide some kind of comfort at the end of a day of broken promises.  “Spreads out” suggests something like a blanket that the nun spreads over the world. But rather than a comforting blanket, the nun spreads out “her wimple and starry cape.” We don’t see full-dress nuns much any more, so for those to whom a wimple is an obscure reference, it is, as per Rogier van der Weyden’s fifteenth-century painting, a piece of cloth folded around the head, covering the forehead, sides of the face, sometimes the chin, and often terminating in what I can only call a starched bib — all white.

If the wimple is a puzzling reference, how about the “starry cape”? Well, “starry” is fine—the nun spreads out something that creates a starry sky (but now what about that white wimple?). But I think of nuns as wearing black robes, not capes. True, I don’t relish the thought that she would be taking off her robe, but she has apparently already begun the disrobing with the wimple.

The nun is also odd because she is the nun, not a nun. Which nun exactly are we talking about?

I don’t mean to be dismissive. In fact, the “offness” of these references seems calibrated to create a sense of uncertainty or mystery. If Wright reads this poem at Davidson, the effect may be perfect, at least for those willing to be knocked slightly off kilter and keep listening.

To continue. Wright then asks

Whose childhood could hold such purity,
such fire-blown eyelids of the dead?

“Such” purity looks backward in the poem, and it must be the scene we have just witnessed. But that purity is very mixed — although we have the nun’s comforting gesture, we have the “broken promises of the day”. How pure is “such purity”? “Such purity” also appears to be described by the next line, “such fire-blown eyelids of the dead.”

Whatever that last phrase may mean, this purity is not very pure, at least in any kind of uplifting sense. In the next line, which starts a new stanza, “It,” referring back to “such purity,”

. . . is a wound that cannot be touched.
Even by either hand of St. Thomas.

OK now, Mr. Wright, you’ve got to stop your reading for a few minutes while I take that in. First, let’s note that with the new stanza we have moved from the initial scene-setting to a reflection on it. That scene, and the purity it reflects, now becomes a “wound”. Also, the poem now reaches out to a wider context, the Biblical story of Thomas. The poem is referring to the story that made Thomas famous as the Doubter. Thomas refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead after his crucifixion until he touched Jesus’ wounds.

Here, the “purity” is a wound that cannot be touched, and St. Thomas enters at this point, the poem evoking his defining moment as the Doubter, except that this moment is different in that St. Thomas cannot touch the wounds.

By touching Jesus’ wounds, Thomas cleared up (for himself) a mystery. But the mystery here will not be resolved, because he cannot touch the wound (i.e. “such purity”). To make the point doubly clear (and even slightly comic?), Thomas cannot touch the wound with “either hand.”

So the mystery remains, for Thomas, for the reader, and, God help her (if I may use the expression), the listener at the hypothetical reading. Thomas cannot touch the wound and resolve his doubts, and neither can we.

Then, suddenly, the tension falls. Wright says simply “Wish him well.” I imagine myself at a reading of the poem, and I give a tremendous sigh of relief: I can do that. I can wish him well. One reason is that on this cold, late summer day, I, too, would like to touch the wound and resolve all of these questions.

Insisting on such certainty is too much. When Thomas touches Jesus’ wounds, he believes it is Jesus, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.” The poem alludes to this implicit criticism of Thomas when it says

His supper was not holy, his gesture not sinless.

But despite the criticism of Thomas and his insistence on certainty in the Biblical scene, the poem invites us to wish him well and concludes,

May ours be equal to his,
whatever sky we live under.

Instead of criticizing Thomas, the poem takes his gesture as a desideratum—may our gesture be equal to his. The last line returns us to the “sky” of the first stanza, but now all the details of the nun and her wimple and cape do not matter. The poem hopes that our doubting and reaching for reassurance may be Thomas-like “whatever” the setting in which we find ourselves.

So the poem is an experience of a descent into uncertainty and mystery in the first stanza, a recognition that the uncertainty cannot be resolved, and a release in the final lines that accepts both the mystery and the attempts to find certainty even as we accept that uncertainty of our broken days is not to be resolved.

For all its difficulty, this poem is wonderful on the page, but also, I expect, when experienced “live.” At a reading we do not need to analyze the difficulty or the uncertainty, because we experience it.  We can then easily experience the clarity and comfort of “Wish him well.”  I hope Wright reads this one at Davidson.

Credit & Link

Image is Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Woman with a Winged Bonnet, circa 1430.

Charles Wright, Caribou: Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

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