Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, by Richard Wilbur
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
It has been said that all language is political — with every statement we make a stand, even if it is a statement of preference as benign as “I don’t like peanut butter”, a stand has been made. Richard Wilbur maintains that poetry is an inevitable expression of religious assertions, regardless of what religious stance (or anti-religious sentiments) the poet deems important enough to take. Upon reading the interview in which he elaborates on this belief, I wanted to edit out ‘religious’ and insert ‘spiritual’. For him, I suppose, the two words mean the same. Nevertheless, I absolutely agree that the poets of all generations cannot avoid the inevitability of expressing spirituality in their work. Maybe, just maybe, that is the purpose of poetry.
Richard Wilbur and this poem were my focus in the last college paper I wrote. I felt it necessary to save him and this gorgeous work as my last contribution to the A Poem A Day celebration for National Poetry Month, 2015. Why? Because, in my opinion, Wilbur has managed to capture the fleeting insight only gained in that moment we have all experienced many times over — that moment, half asleep, half awake, in which we see far beyond the doldrums of day-to-day living, that moment when the spirit loosens from its fleshy encasement and almost floats back to heaven. Almost.
Maybe it is love that calls us back, maybe it’s the heaviness of sudden disappointment. Yet another human failing. Regardless, in that fleeting floating, wondrous moment, spirituality floods in. Inspiration. Understanding of things otherwise impossible to comprehend in waking hours. Spirituality free from the weight of religion.