Wrestling with the Angel
Review: Tom Hansen - New Letters Review of Books, Winter 1991, Vol. 4, #2
In Genesis, Jacob wrestles with an angel, defeats it, and forces it to bless his life. In Lance Lee’s “Wrestling With The Angel”, a man wrestles with life itself, trying to make it give him “some living moment” that will transform him so he no longer hears in the heart of everything — daily routine, work, even passion — the hollow sound of silence. Many of these poems undoubtedly reflect Lee’s personal life (near death of a daughter, cancer surgery of wife, Polish ghetto experiences of ancestors) but in naming the first section of this book, “A Modern Life,” he invites us to see his protagonist as a middle-aged American Everyman who, judging from outward appearances, has a good marriage and lives a happy life. But the inner emptiness is always there, prompting him to ask, “Who am I? What is my life for?” Wrestling with this angel, preoccupied with himself, he fails to give his wife or their marriage enough attention.
But there are moments of transformation, almost of transfiguration. In “Backrub” he rubs his wife’s bare back, noticing “that footlong scar where they cut her cancer out,” noting how “no matter how hard I rub, that length of white/ stays white, dead white,” until finally she turns around and they begin to make love “as we make one body, share one scar, rubbing/ at that long white question, that death,/ as near to us as skin.” In this moment they are truly married: not till death do us part, but because death do us join — because, as husband and wife, we are living and dying together.
The emptiness of “A Modern Life” is essentially spiritual — that of a man who, in “My Hunger For Meaning,” tells us that his grandfather still remembers ancient tribal rituals but that he himself, a child of the twentieth century, finds no meaning in those all-but-forgotten rituals or in such institutionalized abstractions as God and State.
The second section of this book, “Bread,” (implicitly suggesting that one does not live by bread alone) explores three possible avenues of escape from the quietly pervasive nothingness of “A Modern Life.”
One possibility is love, but the half dozen love poems here document the failure of love — or the failure of the would-be lover to be worthy of the love he seeks. A second possibility is the transforming power of art, but the only life significantly transformed by art is that of the artist. Finally, in “To Make Bread,” Lee’s struggling protagonist discovers the simple Zenlike answer: one must throw oneself into every aspect and activity of one’s life with total abandon.
“To Make Bread” is the penultimate poem of the book. The last poem shows that those “who live here,” wholly in the world, experience the world as an earthly paradise. In saying this, Lee echoes the This-Is-IT, Be-Here-Now focus of Zen. This poem, and so the book, concludes with the lines, “Anonymous lives, light, the still lavender/ of nightfall, grass — these are all.” And yet Lee has titled this last poem “Would It Was Enough.” Clearly, it isn’t. Nothing is. Lee’s Everyman wrestles with his angel. He cannot defeat it. The emptiness, the silence at the heart of things, is in him.