The Price of Grace

March 27, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Peter Kline on “How the Light Is Spent” by Adam Giannelli

The title reference of Adam Giannelli’s sonically gorgeous and finely wrought meditation on light is, of course, Milton’s famous sonnet, “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” In that poem, Milton’s speaker despairs as to how he can prove his worthiness to God when he has been robbed of his eyesight. Milton’s great feat is to persuasively rebut these fears with words of universal consolation, culminating in the famous final line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” In these words, Milton gives us sinners a lot of rope to hang ourselves with—how many hours of Final Fantasy XV might be justified under the idea of “standing and waiting”?—but his essential theme is grace. He argues, as Paul proclaimed to the Ephesians, that we do not earn God’s favor through our actions, however great or small they are; God gives it to the faithful at his discretion, gratuitously.

Giannelli’s poem presents a much more modern and secular version of the world, yet it too searches for signs of grace in a difficult world. Giannelli pivots deftly from Milton’s poem by taking a small piece of it—“light”—and giving it center stage in his own poem. The light here is not the radiant-angel sort, but rather the more ordinary sun-generated kind, subject to the laws of physics and the imperfection of the world it inhabits. Graceful personification brings the light to life—in the dapple of sun and shade on a leaf it shows “ambivalences”; it “concedes” the earth under a stand of maples as off-limits to it. Yet it also has real power, a power that starts to take on almost supernatural qualities. In the midst of our humdrum lives, it flares, it conjures, it raises temples:

In the spokes of a bicycle, it
pulsates, and between the loiterers

by the taco stand,
                                 erects pillars.

Before we are quite aware, light has become an almost God-like figure in the poem, an idea reinforced by the associations with Milton’s sonnet. It “accepts the trespasses / against it,” meekly taking on the sins of shadow and darkness. That it can undergo this transformation so effortlessly is a testament to the delicacy of Giannelli’s touch. This subtle transformation culminates in the moving final lines, which deserve quotation here in full:

Like a visitor in a hospital

it waits, warming the spot off
to one side––and it takes such lengths

to leave the room, lingering at
the bedside,
                       the far wall, the doorjamb.

In our time of need, inexplicably, the light is there for us. It is a blessing. Despite its limitations, despite the fact that we shut parts of our lives away from it—“the ingot of shadow / in a drawer”—the light attends on us in our suffering, and will not leave until it must. Four centuries after Milton, in an age that demands superheroes and supervillains, apocalypse and happy ending, this is a god—restrained, semi-effectual, yet deeply compassionate—I can believe in.

Peter Kline teaches writing at the University of San Francisco and Stanford University. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, he has also received residency fellowships from the Amy Clampitt House and James Merrill House. His poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Tin House, and many other journals, as well as the Best New Poets series, the Verse Daily website, and the 2015 Random House anthology, Measure for Measure. Since 2012 he has directed the San Francisco literary reading series Bazaar Writers Salon. His first collection of poetry, Deviants, was published by SFASU Press in 2013.

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