Reviewer: Lee Rossi
The latest volume in the Poiema Poetry Series, which, as the series editor declares, “presents the work of gifted poets who take Christian faith seriously,” Mischa Willett’s Phases is less noteworthy for its declarations of religious belief than for the way it mimics poets for whom Christianity was a cultural given. One encounters not just Donne and Marvell, whose ghosts echo in Willett’s rhymes and “sleights of syntax,” but also latter-day metaphysical poets such as Eliot and Auden. Yet not all his heroes are avowedly Christian. Billy Collins is referenced as is Tom Lux, both of whom have a gift for “felt thought,” but the example of Richard Wilbur, with his love of elegance and Italian culture, seems particularly strong.
Phases, then, offers the spectacle of a poet wrestling with the peculiarly modern angel of irony and thereby finding a fresh and convincing way into ancient mystery. The title of the poem “I Was Cold and You Lit Me on Fire” is the kind of cruel joke which only someone who still takes Jesus at his word could pen. In the poem, the Word chides His followers thusly:
When I was Hungary, you bled
me. I leaned my long hair out
the window and you climbed it.
Puns and allusions to different kinds of stories—fairy tale, myth, and Bible—weave together, the point being that humanity takes whatever advantage it can of God’s grace, but usually without giving God a second thought, a point that by poem’s end has hit home: “The people were amazed. / And sore. And afraid.” Apparently, we don’t like to have our noses rubbed in our own selfishness.
There is a lightness to these poems, what the Italians call sprezzatura, which nevertheless manages to support their moral and religious weight. Here is the first stanza of “The Help”:
Since the angel offered
the bowl of holy
water like a tray of sweet-
meats at a cocktail gathering
I took one, by which I mean some,
like chestnuts were a-roasting
and it was Christmas, which,
in the way that all masses
are feasts of Christ, I sup-
pose it was.
The title refers to the sculpture of an angel bearing the holy water font at the entrance to some old and fairly fancy church. Playful is the only way to describe the tone. One of the angelic hosts is “hosting” a mass, which the poet irreverently compares to a cocktail party. And the holy water is like “chestnuts a-roasting,” the comparison and the rhyme both gleefully inappropriate to the usual solemnity of Christian liturgy. Notice also the penultimate line break, another pun, supping at the feast.
Many of the poems in this collection take place in Italy, the ancient center of Western Christianity. Here is the complete text of “View from the Ponte Vecchio”:
Look at those
all that rain:
Notice the deftness of this miniature piece, the slant rhymes (effaced, erasing, masonry; rain and fame), and the brutal truncation of the last line, syntactic analogue to the feats of weather celebrated in the preceding lines, an ellipsis which puts us in mind of the English 17th century with its Cavalier (or was it Roundheaded) disregard for spoken grammar. Time does to fame what water does to stone.
There is, in fact, a poem in this collection entitled “Sprezzatura,” which functions as an ars poetica for both poet and book.
Do not, like a purse-dog,
like a show pony, bare
your infirm affection for
everyone in the colosseum
to see. Better for them
… [to] think:
I should be careful
around this one.
Lightness is evident in the images (purse-dog, show pony), but also an underlying steeliness—the suggestion that the poet is also a gladiator. Call him an entertainer, if you will, but the show is blood sport, life or death.
A similar moral fervor animates “Apostasy,” a meditation on modern secularism. Unaware of its meaning, a friend is about to drain the dregs in his tea cup, as if to say there’s “No meaning / and here’s to it!” a stance taken by most people in our spiritually desiccated world. “What’s holy now?” the poet asks in a note to the poem—we don’t read tea leaves or the entrails of pigeons. And just as surely as we’ve cut ourselves off from signs of divine providence, we also ignore life’s everyday warnings: a man “outside the window…dressed for a war / that’s been over all our lives, and a girl / in a green coat reddening in the cold.”
A similar indictment animates “Tyrannus,” which reprises the argument between Creon and Oedipus from Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. The criticism, however, is indirect, implicit in the poem’s sound and its almost offhanded discussion of a venerable cliché. The poet writes:
…The ship of state,
such a popular visual tool . . .
is getting its start
as a symbol here, in this argument,
in this room,
where both men attempt to steer
away from the so obviously
impending doom and manage
only to hasten its day, put a face
on the loss, and go down with the crew.
Tool, room, doom, crew—how can we not hear the sound of shock and aghast surprise, the poet’s reaction to the atrocities of our public life?
Of course, the reader encounters occasional false notes. One suspects that not enough care was taken in the editing and layout of the book. In addition to the occasional typo, one notices that this short book is divided into nine sections, the titles of which tell us almost nothing about their contents. Taken from Galileo’s map of lunar regions (“Ocean of Storms,” “Sea of Crisis,” “Lake of Hatred,” to give a few examples), they feel like an editorial imposition rather than an organic way of guiding the reader through the book. I also wish more thought had been given to the overall design. While the poems themselves are presented cleanly, the section titles (two-time losers!) offer what strikes this reader as an incongruous and unpleasantly contrasting typeface.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, however, Mischa Willett’s Phases is a wonderful book, filled with energy and thoughtfulness, resonant with the strenuous Christianity which still makes Hopkins and Donne pleasurable to read even in these post-Christian times.