A Pilgrim Chaucer Never Mentioned

January 20, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Lisa Ampleman on “The Apostate’s Addendum by Zachariah McVicker

My first contact with the poem is the mysterious handshake of the title, its juicy ambiguity: “The Apostate’s Addendum.” Addendum to what? To the Bible? To others’ statements of belief? To Jack London’s story of a child forced into labor? I don’t need an answer. But as I read the full poem, I think the apostate may have forsaken a kind of belief—perhaps the (over)praise of love that proliferates in our culture. What is the point of a romantic comedy or holiday movie, after all, but the idolatry of gooey, sticky “love”? What kind of soulful swagger could Bruno Mars have without the genre of that lost lady? And why will we all shell out a little money to Hallmark in mid-February?

But McVicker challenges us: “When we speak of the grotesque, we must also speak of love,” must speak of children murdered or blinded, of monks giving their bodies to buzzards, of the man with the gun in his mouth. The poem moves by associative leaps, but it is not the spare, deep-image poem. It speaks, vatically: “When God allows Job / to suffer the trials, it is because he is ruthless. We were made // In that image.” We, the ruthless, tend to forget the vagaries of love, and what it can do to the body. This poem reminds us. Even so, we hear, too, the Whitman-esque optimism: “Be good, traveler. There are still many things to see.”

What I admire even more than the careful balance of faith and doubt in this poem is the vastness of the image bank, encompassing, somehow, Tibet, Calcutta, the crown of thorns, grape vines in midsummer, and two figures that both call up the hardened, shiny exterior: the chitinous cicada husk, and the gun.

There isn’t explicit answer to the ambiguity of the title, but the final line lets me also read it this way: a tale Chaucer left out, a pilgrim he didn’t mention—the apostate, schooling us on what it means to be good, to travel in this world, to love with all the sacrifices and suffering implied.

Lisa Ampleman

Lisa Ampleman is the author of Full Cry (NFSPS, 2013) and the chapbook I’ve Been Collecting This to Tell You (Kent State UP, 2012). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, 32 Poems, Image, Notre Dame Review, and on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. A graduate of the PhD program at the University of Cincinnati, she lives in Ohio.

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