Much is made of the breadth of Weinberger’s learning. And it’s true that the number of facts and dreams and quotations that fill Angels & Saints is intimidating. But these things are just the raw material of his poetry-like prose. Ezra Pound wrote in a 1915 letter to Harriet Monroe that “poetry should be as well written as prose.” Weinberger turns the dictum on its head, making his prose as recondite and immediate as poetry. What he’s really doing when he overloads us with conflicting theological opinions about the sex lives of angels or various states of dead martyrs' bodies is gently unweaving our certainty about reality, returning the world to a state of mystery and grandeur.
Often, this works, but sometimes, it doesn’t. At its weakest, Weinberger’s technique gives us a rootless view from nowhere, especially evident in some of his writings about Christianity, a subject that requires an author to take a stand. The Irish critic Denis Donoghue said that pragmatists consider themselves superior to belief because they feel independent of its claims, when in reality, they merely “act on beliefs they don’t feel obligated to articulate.” The difference between the pope and the defiantly skeptical poet Wallace Stevens, Donoghue wrote, is that “the pope does not claim to have invented, or deduced from his private desires, the articles of his beliefs.” At his weakest, Weinberger is like Stevens. We should all be so lucky.
But at Weinberger’s strongest, each of his sentences thrums with its own vitality. Each subject feels like it’s been granted a second life in text. In an essay called “The Laughing Fish” in his book Karmic Traces, Weinberger traces the literary representation of the fish from an 11th century Kashmiri text up to D.H. Lawrence’s poetry. The tranquility of observing fish, Weinberger writes, “comes from its total lack of human association. Fish have no connection to our emotional life: unlike other creatures, they do not mate. ... They hardly squabble, they do not care for their young. Even insects work. A fish swims and eats and is pure movement and beauty.”
Angels & Saints is much like fish as Weinberger sees them: Its power comes from unburdening us of all of our casual associations. The language meanders through a history of paradox, of opposing opinions and contradictory revelations. And just when you begin to wonder where it’s all leading, you realize that the movement, free and purposeless, was the point all along. Pure movement and beauty, angels and fish.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor