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Phases, Mischa Willett: "The Truth is Like Poetry"

Michael Minkoff, Jr.


Pay attention to the poet.
You need him and you know it.

               –Bruce Cockburn

Mischa Willett begins his first book of poems, Phases, behind a lectern—a dusty word that conjures the professor or the preacher, either of which would be appropriate here. And from this lectern, Willett’s pastor/shepherd calls the whole human race—readers, speaker, writer, all—“sheep.” And not the adorable, acceptable sheep of the safe and precious metaphor we’re sometimes comfortable placing on children. No, we are all the sheep Andre Dubus describes in “Out Like a Lamb”: “stupid, helpless brutes” who “without constant watching . . . would foolishly destroy themselves.”[1]

We know Willett is telling the truth, though we might fantasize desperately he weren’t. Willett delivers the truth throughout Phases with the layered fullness of meaning, economy of expression, and sneak-up-behind-you humor only excellent poetry can achieve, which will only make matters worse for most of us. For “the truth is like poetry, and most people . . . hate poetry.”[2]

Let’s be honest. Most good poetry—like most good art—intimidates us. Phases, being both, is no different. We probably won’t begin to penetrate its allusions to mythology, history, geography, and literature without Google (or Willett’s own intermittently helpful end notes). With every foreign phrase and alien allusion, Willett accidentally proves he is probably smarter and more cultured than we are. He expresses himself better than we do. His thoughts range at once more wildly and with greater precision than ours.

But we shouldn’t hold that against him. Because it’s apparent he doesn’t hold it against us—or even over our heads.

In Phases, Willett employs his apparent skill, energy, and insight for our benefit—to bring lofty things down where we, the simple sheep, can feed on them. It’s obvious he did this for himself first, but now he does it for us, as much the patient professor as the panting prophet.

He brings religion down from the clouds in poems like “The Help,” where he likens a stone angel at mass to a waitress at a “cocktail gathering” or an attendant at a “washroom.” This poem and others like it (e.g., “Transubstantiation” and “Bird at the Parish of All Souls”) would feel almost irreverent if he had not infused them with such simple, child-like sincerity.

 We can forgive—even praise—Willett both for his poetry and his truth, neither of which we much care for these days, because Willett dons the mantle of a sheep and a child with and for us. His piquant honesty about his own frailty invites us to be honest about our own. Like us, Willett is at times shameful, hung over, awkward, stymied, or simply unable to help himself (as in “You Deserve a Better Apology,” “The Leering Man Almost Speaks Up,” or “The Time I Tried…”). With pathos and precision, Willett articulates our deepest shames and highest longings, and he returns them to us transfigured—constructive, attainable, and bracing rather than damning, exasperating, and stagnant.

Poetry has a bad, and perhaps well-deserved, reputation for high-brow inscrutability. We are taught that poetry consists entirely of elements the everyday sheep can’t understand—high-flung language, inverted syntax, esoteric forms, rarified sentiments, obscure mysteries, stuffed conceits, and the occasional codpiece of lingual over-compensation. Poetry is a joke we don’t get which we suspect is at our expense. But it doesn’t need to be this way. As Matthew Zapruder explains in his excellent piece for the New York Times:

In poetry our familiar language can start to feel resonant with significance, more alive, even noble. The words we use in our everyday lives carry along with them deep reservoirs of history (personal and collective) that can, through a poem, be activated.

In this way, the Jacob’s ladder of Phases goes in both directions. At times, it elevates the mundane; at others, it familiarizes the transcendent. “To see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange” was, according to Novalis, the great aim and essence of romanticism.[3] Phases, like all good poetry, romanticizes the world—both the dirt and the ether. It sheds light on both the homely nest in the temple rafters and the holy moment at the coffee shop.

Phases proves—in the avuncular tradition of poets like Billy Collins and Thomas Lux (both of whom get a nod in Phases)—that poetry can be clever without being condescending, full without being congested, mysterious without being murky, fun (and funny) without being flippant, vulnerable without being self-indulgent, and touching without being sentimental.

So, take it and read it. It’s truth. It’s poetry. It’s good for you.



[1] Andre Dubus, Broken Vessels, “Out Like a Lamb” (Boston: David R. Godine, 1992), 4.

[2] This is the (edited) epigraph to the movie, The Big Short.

[3] As quoted in “Bildung in Early German Romanticism” by Frederick C. Beiser, in Amélie Rorty, ed., Philosophers on Education: Historical Perspectives (London: Routledge, 1998), 294.

Michael Minkoff, Jr. is an author, editor, and producer. He's been writing poetry, fiction, non-fiction, lyrics, or blogs since he was eleven or so, to varying degrees of success. He co-founded The Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal in 2007 and Renew the Arts in 2016 to help the church recognize the importance of artists and art in our mission.