Mark Bauerlein Reviews James Matthew Wilson’s Some Permanent Things

The poems in this weighty volume are too numerous and ponderous to summarize in a review. Some of them date from more than a dozen years ago. Verse forms vary (sonnets, blank verse, rhymed quatrains, heptameter couplets . . .), and so do topics. Some of the poems are deeply personal, such as the 250-line “Verse Letter to My Father,” the 150-line “Verse Letter to Jason,” his brother, and the 250-line “Verse Letter to My Mother.” We have epigraphs from Jacques Maritain, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound, Edmund Burke, and the New Testament, and poems “after” Baudelaire, Verlaine, Raissa Maritain, and Francis Ponge.

Added to those variations, we have another factor that hinders the summation: a density of sense that characterizes nearly every poem in the book. “The real repels our words or swallows them,” he writes in “Dark Places.” The poem “Bunches of Blackberries” opens, “The poem constitutes a typographic / Thicket along a road that neither leads / Outside of things not stretches to the spirit.” And here is the beginning of “Living Together”:

Where flecks of fabric tangle with your hairs,

Trimmed nails, the dry husks of dead beetles, bottle

Caps flipped into a corner off our beers,

There lies neglect and memory grown mottled


With light and wet air off the river . . .

These are tightly woven lines seeking to impart the complexity of experience, and its intensity, too. And behind the felt moment and perceived object is a desire for something more. It is revealed most directly in “De Profundis,” which begins,

God, oh, My God, the space between us I cannot endure

and ends:

From these abyssal depths, I cry to You, My God, my goal.

The cry isn’t always so anguished and explicit, but it permeates Wilson’s vision. We have experiences detailed in all their sensuous immediacy, plus a searching soul, a waiting spirit, confrontations with woe and mortality.

“Solitaire” is a quiet poem for a solemn occasion, one of the most finished efforts in the collection. It starts with a mundane observation.

 There’s cookie dough and chocolate mint stored up

Next to the untouched vodka in your freezer . . .

Note the easy rhythm in the first line. The cadence of the second three words repeats exactly the cadence of the first three, da-DA-da-DA and da-DA-da-DA. Line 2 abruptly changes the pace, opening with a stress on “Next” followed by two unstressed beats, “to the,” that force a stress on “un-“ and no stress on “touched,” a trochee that is echoed by the other disyllabic words “vodka” and “freezer.”

The three items turn out to be misleading, we should add. They are for pleasure, drinking and dessert, but this household has no joy. The vodka hasn’t been uncapped and the ice cream remains “stored up.”

There are flowers, too, but not fresh ones.

Dead daffodils, whose water grew corrupt

And brown, have been replaced with new stems tweezered


To last in glass, seem angled but not broken.

Someone has taken care to dump the old water and attend to the stems. Again, the rhythm halts and flows, thumping on the accented alliteration “Dead daf-,” stopping on a caesura, then running out in three smooth iambs. The enjambment of lines three and four draw together several elements into a complex image of decay and repair, which, it turns out, perfectly fits the central situation. Before it unfolds, though, Wilson adds another external detail, a contrasting one.

Your neighbors’ kids are roaring on the yard,

So I have closed the sliding door.

Here, with another “Your,” is the second indication of another person in the poem besides the speaker. Interestingly, she isn’t described directly. Instead, we have two distancing references, “Your freezer” and “Your neighbors’ kids.” In other words, they are not his. So what is he doing in this house, poking in the kitchen and shutting doors? We suspect that the rambunctious children aren’t just an annoyance to be squelched. Something more is going on inside.

In the next lines we enter the resident’s room.

And though, when

You shut your eyes, I shuffle hush-mouthed cards, . . .

The cards explain the title of the poem. Two people are present, but he plays alone while she sleeps. (I assume she is a woman—do men hoard ice cream?; that she isn’t a child, because of the vodka; and that she has no children, or that her children have grown up and moved on.) The music of the verse continues, “You shut” balanced by “I shuffle hush-.”

The next line clarifies his presence, containing the first words that go beyond concrete description and voice a judgment.

This is no vigil or imprisonment.

The line trips along without pause, with six “-i-“ sounds. It starts with an impersonal declaration, “This is no,” that shifts the perspective to an abstract level. Obviously, she needs calm and quiet, so he shuffles quietly, no snapping of cards. Now we know that he doesn’t resent being there, nor is he waiting for her die. He’s just there, giving her his presence.

Next, he explains why, at least partially.

Though you lie weak from all the doctor did

And I play solitaire to pass hours spent

Watching you wake and sleep and wake in bed, . . .

She is sick or injured, recovering from an accident or surgery, or coping with a chronic disease. We don’t know and it doesn’t matter. She has a simple pattern of life right now, “wake and sleep and wake,” and he stays near, his own life suspended, “Watching,” playing a pointless card game over and over.

The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, and the final couplet fills out the situation just enough to give it a haunting, human background. It commences with the third “though.”

Though I had nothing to do with this, I hurt

You once, and hold you now, to prove I’ve learned.

Wilson doesn’t identify the “hurt”; he only puts it in the past. She suffers now, from another pain, but he knows his responsibility. That’s what he’s “learned.” A former cruelty of some kind, however much it may have stemmed from passion or ache, calls for penance. It is not enough to regret it, to feel bad about it. You have to act upon it, to levy a cost upon yourself, such as halting your own life to serve another. The word “prove” marks that burden, which matches the Catholic sacrament of anointing the sick.

It’s a strong poem, and it lingers once it’s over. I devote so much time to it because it demonstrates Wilson’s verbal artistry. It also exemplifies his prevailing themes of human suffering and moral duty, here planted firmly in a concrete scene. There are many other sobering episodes and affecting lines in this volume. It is to be worked through slowly, with lines parsed and reread at times of contemplation. I hope I have shown with the example of “Solitaire” that the labor is worth it.


About Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein earned his doctorate in English at UCLA in 1988. He has taught at Emory since 1989, with a two-and-a-half year break in 2003-05 to serve as the Director, Office of Research and Analysis, at the National Endowment for the Arts. Apart from his scholarly work, he publishes in popular periodicals such as The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education. His latest book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30 (, was published in May 2008.
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