My friend, the talented poet Jennifer Stewart Miller, recently sent me a poem that appeared in The New Yorker — “Goat Hour Gospel (Such Salvage)” by Mark Wagenaar. I don’t subscribe, so I often miss poems I might love. But one of the best things about having friends who are writers is that we help each other cast a wider net, catching the poems, novels and stories that might affect and change us before they go back into the ether.
I’m struck most by these lines: “No relic is safe, it seems, from an invisible tide that presses them upward. / Sometimes it’s not the loss that hurts but the indignities of the discovery.” The idea of relics pushing upward out of the earth is disturbing and surprising. The movement works against gravity, a law that we think keeps what’s hidden underneath the surface. But this makes sense physically and emotionally. Nothing can remain hidden forever.
The second person “you” does not always work for me. But here, it feels intimate, careful, and tender.These quietly musical, long-lined couplets are grounded by a voice that has authority but does not claim to be all-knowing and all-perfect. This speaker hedges and gives us a lot of “might” and “maybe” as he lets us see his mind at work. We are in the poet’s mind as he works out the relationship between these goats “bumbling through briar, chewing through poison ivy, sniffing at trees” and the mercy that enters the poem a little later.
The image of the goats themselves is central: “Their dirty white fur shines a little in this late, lost hour.” It turns out this is a poem of praise, a subtly glass-is-half-full kind of poem. And in this 21st century nature poem (as my friend Jen calls it), Wagenaar mixes the old and the new in his assured narrative voice. The biggest surprise of the poem, though, is the assertion that mercy is what will come to all of us, “even for the undeserving, / for those of us who didn’t live right, or live best. Whatever that means. / Mercy will find us, even when we fail to recognize it, when we least expect it.” I appreciate how the poet is able to bring in the idea of mercy, something so charged and weighty, and make it feel like it could actually come to all of us.