AUGUST 20, 2018
AS A CHILD in Sunday School, I heard the biblical story of Doubting Thomas frequently — a moral about the dangers of doubt. After Christ’s resurrection, so the story goes, Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that Jesus was alive. Famously, upon seeing the risen Christ, he placed his hands in the wounds. For Thomas, even seeing wasn’t believing — he had to touch his doubt away.
But less famous than Thomas’s doubt is his faith. In almost every available translation of the scene in John 20, he exclaims the same phrase: “My Lord and my God!” Though seemingly insignificant, Thomas is the only disciple to call Jesus both his Lord and his God. When Thomas’s doubt vanishes, it reveals a durable faith.
In Mark Wagenaar’s new book, Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining, the poet’s third, the speaker searches constantly for evidence of God’s presence in the world. It is a book of doubt just as much as it is a book of faith. Indeed, doubt threatens, at every line break, to wrest faith from the speaker’s hands.
But books of doubt are books of faith, and Southern Tongues understands this. Reading these poems, I thought often of the poet Christian Wiman’s definition of faith: “To believe is to believe you have been torn / from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim.” Faith, both Wiman and Wagenaar affirm, does not mean that the abyss of disbelief disappears. Rather, it means standing just at its edge and still, despite everything, believing.
This faith, which believes not in spite of doubt but because of it, appears clearly in a poem entitled “Prayer for This Day.” Here Wagenaar alludes to Doubting Thomas:
Reach out your hand & put it in my side,
my Lord said to the doubter.
And wherever you are, put your hand here:
no one was shot in Dallas today.
These lines do not condemn “the doubter.” Instead, they offer Thomas’s doubt as a model for contemporary faith. But unlike Thomas, the contemporary doubter cannot simply touch Christ’s side and believe. The speaker of this poem offers an alternative — the fact that “no one was shot in Dallas today” — as proof of God’s existence. This small moment of peace seems, at best, insignificant, and, at worst, inadequate — especially when viewed in light of the 2016 Dallas shooting. But faith accrues in small doses. Later in the same poem, Wagenaar offers another small peace to “put your hand” in: “the stadiums alive in their hundred thousand watt wounds, / our towns desegregated for one night, just one, / so this must be a dream / or an act of God…” Wagenaar knows that these moments will not heal the deep, enduring wounds that haunt both his book and our country. But, as the title tells us, this poem is only a prayer for this day — he will reckon with tomorrow when it comes.
The proclamations of faith that appear in “Prayer for This Day” do not arrive in every poem. “[T]he horse’s spirit dwells in its body,” writes Wagenaar in the first line of “Refugee,” the opening poem in Southern Tongues. By emphasizing the bifurcation of spirit and body, the speaker casts “the horse’s spirit” as the titular refugee: it only “dwells” temporarily in the body, and does not issue from it. Later, after watching the horse run out of the field, the speaker asks: “if it was escape that brought you here / where will you go // if you are the lone glyph that the language / of vanishing has left behind // what will you sing.” At first read, these unpunctuated, earnest lines appear as a kind of failed classical invocation of the Muse. But given the poem’s title, they are not only self-reflective. When the speaker asks, “if it was escape that brought you here / where will you go,” he is asking not just himself or the horse, but also the millions of men, women, and children who live each day caught between borders. Confronted with such a crisis, the speaker offers no adequate answers or confident faith, and “Refugee” ends in troubled confusion.
Throughout the book, Wagenaar’s speaker both worries over and doubts language’s efficacy. In a long sequence entitled “Mississippi Tongues: a Poem in Nine Parts,” the speaker eulogizes both the “ghost towns” scattered across the eponymous state, as well as a word from one of the “ghost tongues” from Mississippi’s past — in this case the Choctaw word Issaquena (meaning deer river). The poem’s first section ends with a statement both hopeful and despairing: “[W]e bear the light of names no one knows how to say anymore.”
This reality — that language dies out — comes up again in the third section of “Mississippi Tongues,” “Southern Locution (Erasures)”:
Even now the letters & syllables begin to
Ravel themselves around their own disappearances
As the speakers forget them: Mephis, Missippi:
like phantom limbs, like a
Shroud of fingerprints lifted from arrowheads
Underneath the bodies. This is how a place vanishes.
These lines are equal parts warning and elegy, anger and acceptance. “Even now,” the speaker tells us, this vanishing has begun. The harsh enjambment in the broken third line echoes this disappearance, too, when Wagenaar’s second simile stops as if on the edge of a cliff: “like phantom limbs, like a” — and, at this, the line breaks. Where we expect words, we get white space, devoid of language. And, even when the next line resolves the dissonant chord, we are given only a “shroud of fingerprints.”
If things we once knew — language, places — can vanish, then how can we believe in a vanished God we’ve never seen or heard? This question haunts Southern Tongues. In two different poems, the speaker looks up from the Southern landscape and cries out in frustration at God’s silence. In section two of “Mississippi Tongues,” he asks, “how long / will Yahweh stay silent[?]” In “Texas Blues,” he asks, “How long / will faith mean a belief / in what I cannot see?” Though Wagenaar sets these poems in Mississippi and Texas, respectively, his tone echoes that of an Old Testament psalmist. He is waiting on God, but can only wait for so long.
While the lyric “I” mediates this doubt, Wagenaar does not question God purely because of his own private, individual experience. Instead, much of his doubt emanates from the empathy he feels toward those the world has wronged. As a collection, Southern Tongues weeps for the exiled and the outcast. At different points, the speaker prays for his “student with the immigration hearing”; gazes cynically as a “Union gunboat fires on retreating black soldiers, / instead of the charging Confederates”; and laments “those driven from their homes in Quakertown / & across the railroad tracks to Salomon’s Hill a century ago.”
Surrounded by such suffering, Wagenaar asks, how can we believe in God? Or, as he writes in “Southern Update: Triptych”: “Are we all the roads we’ve crossed in the towns we’ve lived? / Is that how we’ll sum up our lives, / by what we’ve left behind? Or the sum of our doubts?” This question lingers over a section break, but when the next lines arrive, he answers his own question:
I don’t trust myself
or my doubts, or God, though sometimes
I can’t tell them apart.
Tonight I backed away from Him
as if from a bootlegger with a ten gauge.
But your soul’s the still,
He said, reading my mind,
I’m only the wound I’ve blown open in you
& the first breath after.
Instead of demanding certainty, Wagenaar offers humility as doubt’s alternative. It’s a paradox, certainly: that the way to faith is to sacrifice one’s own need for intellectual clarity. But paradox has always marked the Christian faith. How else to believe in a God who died except to recognize that he is, as Wagenaar puts it, both “the wound” and “the first breath after”?
Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining does not claim to solve the problem of Christian doubt. Nor does it want to. Instead, it examines what it means to live by faith not just east of Eden, but in the United States in 2018. Wagenaar references Doubting Thomas for a reason: he feels no shame over his doubt, but neither does he bow down to it.
In the book’s eponymous poem, Wagenaar writes that he’s “glad someone’s mumbling the charms” that keep us safe from life’s daily dangers. Among these “charms,” which range from “a woman’s bra wire” that saved her from a bullet to “bluebird bones & moonlight,” Wagenaar includes an image of “white soap shavings” that surround a friend, who sits “on his chair / (after whittling all that’s not angel from the soap bar).”
This small image — of a man carving an angel from soap — has begun to represent, in my mind, Mark Wagenaar’s poetry. If faith in God is “the angel,” then Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining is the result of Wagenaar sitting in a simple chair, whittling doubt, worry, fear, anxiety — “all that’s not angel” — away, so that we can admire the “white soap shavings” that surround him — as well as the angel we never expected to see.