Friday, July 3, 2009

Ronald Wilcox: "Portrait of a Puritan"

I've been reading my way through the poetry published in Dialogue for a project I'm working on (note: I absolutely love the searchable DVD archive they sent me for my recent contribution) and I discovered a long poem by Ronald Wilcox: "Quantum Gospel: A Mormon Testimony." (The link leads to the table of contents for volume 40.2 [Summer 2007]; I wish the poem was accessible elsewhere, but it's not. Sorry. The journal's got to make some dough somehow, I guess.) It explores, among other things, the connections between nature/creation/the universe, the individual, and God. One of my favorite lines from the poem is this: "My flesh is wrapped about schisms of intentions."

But enough teasing.

Because "Quantum Gospel" kind of swept me off my feet (even though I don't completely understand it---hooray for re-reading!), I thought I'd look up some of his other Dialogue published poems and found that he's also published in Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems (with a longer version of "Multiplicity," another striking poem I must return to). Of his other poems, I thought I'd direct you to "Portrait of a Puritan" with this post.

In this poignant short poem, the poet paints a word picture of a young man "who hangs between two [socio-cultural] poles / (approval/disapproval) / who fits or does not fit / the occasion according to conscience" (lines 2-5). In other words, he's caught between two worlds: between strict adherence to the prudish traditions and cultural mores and adherence to his conscience, which sometimes seems at crossways with his community. (Sound familiar to anyone?)

But what is he to do? Having been brought up within this distinctive cultural "cant" (or, as I read it, cultural bend), however, as the poet reminds us, "[h]is will is not his own" (7-8). He must obey or face some degree of castigation from "[h]is ubiquitous [and preponderant] parent" (9)---representative of the cultural will---who mumbles a perpetual and "inaudible [because culturally implied] no" (13) and whose finger has bookmarked "Ecclesiastes" (14), meaning the parent's life and thought is defined, in large part, by the Preacher and, thus---because how and what we think is to a great degree determined by what we read and the culture we're bound to---by a tendency to preachiness.

But again, as the poet reminds us, his "friend[s]" (15), those who, like him, have a proclivity to question, well, most if not everything: we should leave "him alone" (15). He has his cultural aches and pains, his personal will and desires buried beneath the communal facade. And his dreams are filled with images of freedom: "wind and rain and sky" and "a wild goose cry[ing] / [...] / in the naked night" (16-9). In short, we who consider ourselves more (intellectually, socially, emotionally, sexually, etc.) free should feel for him and seek to remember such tendencies in ourselves. We shouldn't judge so harshly when we see Puritans being, well, Puritan.

I think this is a good example of one way literature can affectively (yes, I mean it with an "a") show a culture something about itself by analogy and metaphor, even---and especially---without being overtly didactic.

And I leave the image at that.