Which have ridden to homeless wreck, and long revolved In the lathe of all the seas, But have saved in spite of it all their dense Ingenerate grain.
Scrubbed under faucet water the planet skin Polishes yellow, but tears to the plain insides; Parching, the white’s blue-hearted like hungry hands. All of the cold dark kitchens, and war-frozen gray Evening at window; I remember so many Peeling potatoes quietly into chipt pails.
But then, as Jarrell wrote, “The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time”; and the same holds true of peace poets, in whose company Wilbur confessedly belongs. In “Up, Jack,” Wilbur looks to Falstaff as a tutelary spirit for the postwar world, “a god / To our short summer days and the world’s wine.” Wilbur’s refined epicureanism is far removed from Falstaff’s grossness, but the poet dares, like the fat knight, to make an ethic of enjoyment. There is something quietly polemical about Wilbur’s proud adoption-by-translation, in “Ceremony,” of La Fontaine’s “Ode to Pleasure”:
For games I love, and love, and every art, Country, and town, and all; there’s nought my mood May not convert to sovereign good, Even to the gloom of melancholy heart. Then come; and wouldst thou know, O sweetest Pleasure, What measure of these goods must me befall? Enough to fill a hundred years of leisure; For thirty were no good at all.
The winter deepening, the hay all in, The barn fat with cattle, the apple-crop Conveyed to market or the fragrant bin, He thinks the time has come to make a stop, And sinks half-grudging in his firelit seat, Though with his heavy body’s full consent, In what would be the posture of defeat, But for that look of rigorous content.
The rocks flush rose and have the melting shape Of bodies fallen anyhow. It is a Géricault of blood and rape, Some desert town despoiled, some caravan Pillaged, its people murdered to a man.
And like a breaking thought Joy for a moment floods into the mind, Blurting that all things shall be brought To the full state and stature of their kind.
A childhood by this fountain wondering Would leave impress of circle-mysteries: One would have faith that the unjustest thing Had geometric grace past what one sees.
Published in the print edition of the November 22, 2004, issue.
Adam Kirsch is a poet, a critic, and the author of, most recently, “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?”THE NEW YORKER