Leonore Wilson’s Tremendum, Augustum (AldrichPress 2014) is a wonderful poetry collection, and a remarkable poetry collection. Like a Brahms symphonic movement, I know that there is power and substance here even if I am not fully able to grasp it.
And who wants to bother with poetry that you can fully grasp at one reading? Well, yes, you are right, most people. But immediate understanding is not the point of good poetry. Nor are new ideas and new ways of seeing immediately understandable.
I started reading this book of poems six months ago, and have periodically read and reread in it since then. Tremendum, Augustum is a book to have at hand, reading it one poem at a time, and then going back. My copy is next to my books by Geoffrey Hill.
When Tremendum, Augustum arrived in April, 2014, the current New Yorker offered a poem by the estimable Charles Simic. His “The One Who Disappeared” is a slight poem, and I was startled by the realization that many of the poems of Tremendum, Augustum were far more worthy of a readerʼs attention.
I realize that the New Yorker is not the right place for longer poems, or for poems that ask politely for a pause, reflection, and rereading. There are horses for courses, as Francis Urquhart once said.
And so the poems in Tremendum, Augustum are better read in a book than in a magazine. Periodicals announce their expiration date, but books state the year of their birth.
One of the threads or themes here appears to be acceptance and resistance, the complex human reaction to necessity, and to interior and exterior compulsion.
The title suggests the dissonant harmony of the awe and uncertainty that people experience if they are paying attention to the human condition, sensing a presence behind our material and social worlds. Tremendum, Augustum is mostly monotonal — not monotonous! — in that in most of the poems a consistent voice can be overheard meditating about experiences and sights from a consistent stance.
These poems are infused by Catholicism, not by its doctrine or dogma, but by its historic expression in art, its vocabulary, its framing.
The first three words of the eponymous first poem suggest a good part of the book’s collective understanding, even if thoughtful further reading suggests some doubt in those first three words. And what intelligent Catholic’s thinking has never lingered over a slight note of doubt?
The opening three words are “Matter’s power consoles.” These three words imply that the poet, like everyone else who pays attention to the state of our world, needs consolation. The words reveal too that the poet expects consolation, and she expects it from the natural world. The words are uttered bravely, perhaps, not confidently. I can imagine the speaker ending the three-word line with a hesitant, doubtful, needy “Right?”
The quiet tone is abandoned for the penultimate, surprising poem, a shocking elegy of sorts whose grief turns to anger and teeters on despair. Despair is an early stage in the traditional elegy, after which elegiasts reach acceptance and thankfulness. Not here. The poet is angry at the suicide’s betrayal, and about the suicide’s incomprehensibility.
This address to the friend who committed suicide despite his promises is probably the most surprising poem about suicide you will ever read. After so many poems here touching upon real or imagined choices, especially some people’s lack of choices, the last poem is an angry remonstrance against a friend who chose suicide over living in our difficult and wonderful world. Sure, the world is pain, but that’s no excuse.
These poems are rich in matter, in the stuff of this world, like Old Masters’ interiors. The poems are rooted in things, mostly outdoor things not seen directly and simply, but mediated by a larger understanding. Like a good Romantic poet or like a priest, not that the two would ever get along well, Leonore Wilson loves the surface of the world but also imagines how it might be emblematic.
The final poem is an address to a sister in suffering, Marina Tsvetaeva. To paraphrase W. H. Auden, about suffering, citizens of the USSR were never wrong. Soviet era poets are grim tonics when we complain about First World Problems.
Leonore Wilson clearly identifies with Tsvetaeva, and she shows an abiding empathy for others, like Lucifer, who so loved the world that he gave up his sinecure because “to fall from heaven is the beginning of beauty.” She imagines Mary declining the offer from Gabriel, and she marvels that Jesuits can stroll down the street past a lovely young woman without experiencing their own fallen tremendum, augustum, and fascinans.
When she imaginatively explores Tsvetaeva’s losses, she brings her readers with her. I recommend that you be one of those readers.
As a disclaimer, I have met Leonore Wilson. If I had made up any of this praise, she would owe me big time. But it is all true. We live in an era of meretricious Poetry Lite, so Tremendum, Augustum is a welcome reminder of what poetry can do and must do.