The Fugitive Self: New and Selected Poems of John Wheatcroft
Paperback, 218 pages
Review by Mary Jane Lupton
The Fugitive Self is not an easy read. The extensive collection, which includes poems dating back to the 1964 volume Death of a Clown and ahead to a section entitled New Poems, represents a lifetime of rigorous contemplation. To begin to grasp the significance of the volume demands that readers review the best-known poems of Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, John Milton, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Lucille Clifton, William Butler Yeats, and a host of ancient and modern predecessors.
Yet even without a knowledge of those sources, the reader will experience joy in reading poems that stand completely by themselves, poems as diverse as “Hitting a Pheasant on the Pennsylvania Turnpike” or “The Second Best Hotel in Chambery” (the latter was first published in 1990 in the New York Times Book Review).
John Wheatcroft was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1925. He attended Temple University on a Mayor’s scholarship. After a semester at Temple, he joined the Navy, hoping to fight against the Germans. Instead, he was assigned to a battleship to fight the Japanese, becoming involved in the battles of the South China Sea, Iwo Jima, Okinowa, and the Japanese mainland.
As a young sailor, Wheatcroft miraculously escaped death when an unnamed enemy, falling from the sky in a parachute, was blown to bits instead of him. Many of his poems, including the title poem “The Fugitive Self,” are attempts to resurrect the dead Japanese warrior within his psyche, to stop the bullets that “tore into/his flowering youth, and scattered it all to petals. I then and there became him.”
In “Love and War” Wheatcroft writes of “bloodied hands,”
blood from our buddies,
innocent blood, blood of the beaten.
All of Wheatcroft’s senses are overcome by the bloodshed. Seeing the flashes from artillery, hearing the blast from guns, the author of “Love and War” wonders if he was perhaps smelling the
stench of flesh we’d never seen
but knew had roasted in the ovens
we’d turned their cities into?
The visionary connections between Hiroshima and the Holocaust are unmistakable.
Other poems not about war nonetheless shock with the violent intensity of their images. In “Oysters” he compares opening the shells of oysters to “slick-fingered abortionists” who “scrape their flesh from its mother-of-pearl/swallow them raw.” In “The Cutting” he describes having “made love/to you with a scapel.” These frightening sexual images reverberate against Wheatcroft’s more gentle academic tributes to French novelist Marcel Proust or to American composer John Davison or to French autobiographer Jean Jacques Rousseau. His conflicting visions suggest a peace-loving poet torn, even traumatized, by his horrific witnessing of war and death.
After World War II, Wheatcroft returned to Temple under the G. I. Bill, transferring to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania in his senior year. He completed his Bachelor’s degree and taught at Bucknell; he later earned his Master’s and his Doctorate from Rutgers and then taught two years at the University of Kansas before going back to the English Department at Bucknell University, where he taught World Literature from 1952 until 1996.
Themes of war, struggle, literature, devastation, relationships, culture, and religion form the core of The Fugitive Self. As he had identified with the dead Asian airman, as prince Hamlet had identified with his slain father/king, so Wheatcroft had identified with his own father, a Baptist clergyman. Wheatcroft wrote me that although he and his father had “different views of the Christian religion,” the differences never interfered with the “beautiful relationship” between them.
In one moving eulogy, “A Prayer for my Anguished Father,” the young Wheatcroft cries: “Let my Father go Lord, Whose dying son has nailed my father on/the shadow cross of self….” In another hymn, “Nulius Filius,” which roughly translates as bastard son, he compares his father to a dying fish and Death to an angler:
No angler ever played a fish more surely
than Death has done my father—only to
unhook his lip
each time and fling him back in life before
he flops on land
his Father promised…
The hooked lip recalls the scapel and nails and scrapings of other poems. The stanza describing his father’s prolonged pain is unending, exhausting, its music soured by the “bony fingers” of Death plucking on his father’s nerves.
The most formidable poetry in the collection is religious in nature. In “Nativity Quintet,” a section from New Poems, Wheatcroft dramatizes many of the Biblical figures surrounding the birth of Jesus: the merchant who gives the infant his swaddling clothes; the thief who will one day hang on the cross next to Christ; the Virgin Mary; Saint Joseph; even the merchant’s donkey, who addresses the Lady, promising to carry her and the baby to safety.
As he retells the familiar story, Wheatcroft echoes Lucille Clifton, T. S. Eliot, the 23rd Psalm, Yeats, Milton, and others. The various figures of the sequence intersect, held together by Saint Joseph’s humble confession to the merchant: “I fear I can pay you nothing, sir” and by the musicality of the “Quinet.”
The extraordinary rhythms of “Nativity Quintet” shift and change—from couplets to ballad form to stanzas of irregular length—exemplifying what Tom Gardner, in his introduction to The Fugitive Self, calls the volume’s “heatbreaking music.” The sequence differs radically from John Milton’s great ode, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” with that ode’s fixed stanzaic structure, and more closely resembles the informal lyrics about Christ and the Virgin that one finds in Lucille Clifton’s some jesus.
The most eloquent voice in “Nativity Quintet” is the mother’s. Mary feels the child’s “first kick” within her and exclaims:
Oh! Something inside me breaks open.
A light from a star right above
This shed turns night into noon
I’m torn apart by love.
The repetition of internal sounds—light, right, night—creates a staccato rhythm similar to a shattering, while the words “breaks open” and “torn apart” image forth the act of a woman in labor. In a single line, Wheatcroft has brilliantly reproduced Mary’s agony but also her joy: “I’m torn apart by love.”
This subtly sexual stanza from the new poems reminds me of a much earlier poem, “The Rollercoaster,” which I heard John Wheatcroft read when I was at Bucknell more than fifty years ago:
How dazzling like the rollercoaster’s
Are the climbs we make together,
The tantalizing tugs,
The breathless instant
While lunging and clutching
For the star bubbling silver
And on and on, in breathless swells, with the ‘bump at bottom” followed by the “ski-ride over the little undulating humps.”
“The Rollercoaster” exudes both energy and climax. Little did I realize, being so terribly naive, that Wheatcroft was describing orgasm. To me, a rollercoaster was a rollercoaster. Nor did I realize, in 1958, that I would one day be privileged enough to review the collected works of a poet whose verse has undulated even more wildly with the passage of time.
Mary Jane Lupton, author of Lucille Clifton: Her Life and Letters (Praeger, 2006), has published two earlier reviews in Poets Quarterly. John Wheatcroft’s most recent book is a novel, The Portrait of a Lover (Inverted-A Press, 2011). All biographical information is from their correspondence.