Contributor’s Marginalia: V. Penelope Pelizzon on “That Much Further West” by John Fenlon Hogan
Skeptic though I am, I find it hard to resist John Fenlon Hogan’s teasing with paradoxes of belief. His speaker moves through a psychic landscape triggered by words his father likes to point to, an apothegm originally from G.K Chesterton. And it seems important that readers are not certain in what spirit the father has offered the paradox; “tender” is one of those words that can mean nearly opposite things. Has the father’s life softened into gently-tolerant belief? Or, as in an older usage of “tender,” has it flamed into a judgment? The “others” who “tender no sentence at all” are like the speaker, people who can offer no statement of faith, whether orthodox or qualified.
Yet even we unbelievers feel “the insatiable inside // of us.” One of my favorite things about this poem is Hogan’s expansion of the simile in stanza four. For two lines, it seems we’re simply being given a visual description to ground that abstract “insatiable.” Yet like belief (and unbelief), the simile shifts shape. From a few frames snipped out of a cliché western it expands into a tangible and desolating landscape, a scene out of The Searchers, maybe, in which the rest of the poem’s action unfolds. Imagine John Wayne’s damaged Ethan Edwards entering the scene across the desert, only to exit alone into the desert at the drama’s end. Endless sky, endless canyon, world without end.
Given the poem’s title, once Hogan establishes that there are western riders in stanzas six and seven, I want to make some connection between its spiritual stance and Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613: Riding Westward.” There, Donne’s physical person is moving toward the nightfall even as his soul “bends toward the East,” scene of the crucifixion. Were he to turn eastward, he would see a seeming-paradox, “a Sunne, by rising set” that will “by that setting endless day beget.” Donne dramatizes love and memory drawing the believer’s soul toward Christ even as his physical being is turned away, and Hogan perhaps asks us to consider the kinds of turning an unbeliever’s love and memory might inspire. Certainly Hogan’s speaker seems inspired by Donne’s rhetorical turns, even if his quest is unorthodox.
I love Hogan’s wordplay about the cowboy’s ontological status. Possibly we’re invited to reframe this question as “What’s a believer when you take away his belief?” He’s a child, one whose heavily-shouldered saddle packs might remind us of the baggage Bunyan’s Christian carries on his back. Christian carries his bundle, filled with the knowledge of his sins, through the Slough of Despond, until he’s freed from it at Christ’s sepulcher. For the unbeliever, there is no sepulcher, no easy unpacking of wrongs.
Wondering if Hogan was alluding to another historical paradox about salvation through unbelief, I turned to the oracle that knows all and typed in the last line. Up popped Mark 9:24, in which Christ meets a father whose child is beset by a demon. Asked by Christ how long the child has been afflicted, the father replies “ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him.” Here we are back among human fathers who worry over the dangers to their sons, and perhaps tender them advice the sons are unlikely to take. Christ insists that all things are possible to those who believe, and the father, weeping, replies, “Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.” While I can hardly call Hogan’s poem “devotional,” I’m impressed by the intelligence with which it’s moved me to consider a landscape where unbelief and belief might meet.
V. Penelope Pelizzon’s second poetry collection, Whose Flesh Is Flame, Whose Bone Is Time, was published in 2014 (Waywiser Press). Her first book, Nostos (Ohio University Press, 2000), won the Hollis Summers Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. She is also the co-author of Tabloid, Inc: Crimes, Newspapers, Narratives (Ohio State University Press, 2010) a study of the relations among American sensation journalism, photography, and film from 1927-1958. Pelizzon’s awards include a 2012 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, the 2012 Center for Book Arts chapbook award, and the “Discovery”/ The Nation Award.