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A Plain Song for Comadre

Though the unseen may vanish, though insight fails
And doubter and downcast saint
Join in the same complaint,
What holy things were ever frightened off
By a fly's buzz, or itches, or a cough? 
Harder than nails

They are, more warmly constant than the sun,
At whose continual sign
The dimly prompted vine
Upbraids itself to a green excellence.
What evening, when the slow and forced expense
Of sweat is done,

Does not the dark come flooding the straight furrow
Or filling the well-made bowl?
What night will not the whole 
Sky with its clear studs and steady spheres
Turn on a sound chimney? It is seventeen years
Come tomorrow

That Bruna Sandoval has kept the church 
Of San Ysidro, sweeping
And scrubbing the aisles, keeping
The candlesticks and the plaster faces bright,
And seen no visions but the thing done right
From the clay porch

To the white altar. For love and in all weathers
This is what she has done.
Sometimes the early sun
Shines as she flings the scrubwater out, with a crash 
Of grimy rainbows, and the stained suds flash
Like angel-feathers.

—Richard Wilbur

Mary Jo Salter reads and discusses Richard Wilbur’s “A Plain Song for Comadre”

Transcription of Commentary

Not his most famous poem, and neither short nor long, Richard Wilbur’s “A Plain Song for Comadre” has nonetheless haunted this reader since I first came upon it in the 1970s.  The poem is partly about the years passing, so I’ll date it within the context of Wilbur’s life (he lived 96 years, dying in 2017) and my own life.  The poem’s first journal appearance was in Poetry in February 1954, half a year before I was born, and it was then collected in Wilbur’s third book, Things of This World, in 1956. I don’t think a single year has gone by in the last forty when I haven’t read it at least two or three times, or discovered a few lines from it echoing in my head—particularly “It is seventeen years /Come tomorrow //That Bruna Sandoval has kept the church /Of San Ysidro…”

Why this milestone achieved by Bruna Sandoval, a “comadre” (in Spanish, a neighbor or a friend or a godmother) who cleans a church in a small California town on the Mexican border, should so move me, born in Michigan to a wholly different life, is something of a mystery.  Any solution may have to start with the tone of high importance Richard Wilbur so often brings (I’m going to use the present tense about him—his poetry lives) to the things of this world.  What we do matters: writing or reading poems, scrubbing floors.  And yet Wilbur’s reader must be careful not to say anything too neat and summary about his poems; this poet may have perfected simplicity, but he isn’t easy. Although the title’s “Plain Song” suggests both the unison singing of the earliest Christian church choristers and Wilbur’s own lyric, he starts on such a high philosophical plane that we have difficulty knowing what he means.  “Though the unseen may vanish”—the very first phrase is a conundrum.  Isn’t it the seen that may vanish?

The sentence goes on: “though insight fails /And doubter and downcast saint /Join in the same complaint…”  Oh, now we “see.”  The “insight” that fails us is the failure of faith; of thinking that “holy things” may have vanished merely because we don’t see them.  The art of seeing has always been at least as essential to Wilbur’s enterprise (he was the son of a painter) as his Christian beliefs.   Having established the metaphor of vision here, as in so many poems, Wilbur now enriches the scene by listing “holy things” (“a fly’s buzz, or itches, or a cough”) perceived only by senses other than the visual—of hearing and of touch.  Wilbur’s fly, as many readers have noted, drifts in by way of his beloved Emily Dickinson. (“I heard a Fly buzz - when I died,” her poem begins; and its later phrase “With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz” is a little triumph of synesthesia that may also have inspired Wilbur’s sense-scumbling.) 

In any case, holy things are “harder than nails”—a homely cliché that is not a cliché, given that it may hint too at the Crucifixion; and perhaps it’s here, at the end of the first stanza, that we first take note of how liquidly Wilbur’s enjambments contradict the hard-as-nails edges of his lines.  Although the rhyme scheme of the six-line stanza is securely hammered in place (each rhyme exact, and in the symmetrical sequence abbcca), the liquidity comes partly from a metrical scheme that contradicts that chosen symmetry.  The number of stresses per line as the stanza progresses (that is, 5 stresses in the first line, followed by 3,3,5,5, and 2) makes its own asymmetrical pattern.  That means that in the poem’s first line, for instance, a pentameter ending in “fails” will eventually rhyme perfectly with the stanza’s final line, “nails”—but that concluding line is uniquely, dramatically brief, with only two stresses.  Although sense will spill into the second stanza, this sixth line of the first stanza catches you up short.  The closest analogy in music might be counterpoint.  If such a technique could be called plain song, Wilbur surely relishes being complicated about plainness.

Another way to take conscious note of the poem’s liquidity is to look at the length of sentences.  The first sentence ends with a question on line 5; the second with a period on line 10.  But the poem, we remember, isn’t in five-line stanzas.  Its six-line-per-stanza logic depends more on a sort of propulsive patience—on both poet and reader continuing to follow the stanza past the resounding cadence of a sentence.  Wilbur’s delays—subjects and predicates preceded by dependent clauses (such as “Though the unseen may vanish”), or by adjectival phrases (as in “Harder than nails //They are”)—take their time in a way that compliments the reader: you can be patient too.   The gorgeousness of the language itself makes you content to wait. Taking such firm but leisurely control, in long sentences, of what you will learn when, Wilbur resembles another of his beloved poets—John Milton, whose cosmology seems to be invoked too.  Wilbur’s “whole / Sky with its clear studs and steady spheres” that “Turn on a sound chimney” is one whose musical spheres ring out from a long-gone era.

But let’s not pass over another moment that precedes this image—in stanza two, where in response to the “sign” of the sun, “the dimly prompted vine / Upbraids itself to a fine excellence.”  Richard Wilbur wrote a lot of light verse, most of it aimed at children, and no account of his seriousness should fail to note that he could be laugh-aloud funny.  More often, though, his humor involves quiet wit like this.  The vine is “dimly” prompted because it doesn’t get enough at first of the “warmly constant” sun; it’s also “dim” because it’s short on intelligence.  And yet it has character—it “Upbraids itself,” it self-criticizes as it grows and entwines itself upward. (Note how the word “Upbraids” is placed at the beginning of the line, which by the rules of this poem means “U” must be capitalized—it’s a little taller already.)

That self-castigating hard laborer, the vine, which becomes rhymingly “fine” in its excellence, might be seen as a symbol of Bruna Sandoval.  But we haven’t met her yet!  Among the seemingly casual architectural feats of this 30-line poem is that with the word “Turn” on line seventeen, Wilbur turns at last from general principles to one single human, Bruna Sandoval, and tells us of her seventeen years of work.  From here on out, it is her poem.  She has “kept” the church of San Ysidro—and with this verb the poet, who seems to enjoy a god-like omniscience about his unsung heroine, shows special attentiveness.  He never says she “cleans” the church; instead, she keeps it.  She keeps “the plaster faces bright” as well as the “clay porch”—there’s no immortal art in this church, no monumental marble.  With his nod in the direction of humble materials, the great Richard Wilbur shows something of his own humility and why he is drawn to Bruna Sandoval’s.  She is a person who “has seen no visions” (which recalls the first line’s reference to the “unseen”) and whose goal is “the thing done right.”  The simple monosyllabic word “done” is repeated surprisingly soon, too—repeated when the sophisticated Wilbur might have chosen some loftier verb.  “For love and in all weathers / This is what she has done.”  Doing, over and over, is a form of prayer, he seems to say.  The words “sweeping” and “scrubbing” appear before “grimy” and “stained”—that is, the sweeping and scrubbing will be done again.  Bruna Sandoval is familiar with this soiled world, and she has no idea she is being celebrated for what she does with it. What she knows is how to “fling the scrubwater out” and, matter-of-factly, to see rainbows and angel-feathers there.

"A Plain Song for Comadre" from THINGS OF THIS WORLD by Richard Wilbur.

Copyright © 1956, renewed 1984 by Richard Wilbur.

Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Mary Jo Salter

Sally Keith

Read “Tennis in the Snow” by Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter (1954- ) is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently The Surveyors (2017). Her song cycle to music by Fred Hersch, Rooms of Light: The Life of Photographs, was performed in part at Lincoln Center in 2007 and as a full-length production at the Kasser Theater in 2015. Her children’s book The Moon Comes Home appeared in 1989; her play Falling Bodies premiered in 2004. She is also one of three co-editors of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th edition, 1996; 5th edition, 2005; 6th edition, 2018). Salter is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Photo credit: Marina Levitskaya.

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) was born in New York City. He is the author of 14 poetry collections, including Things of This World (1956), which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and New and Collected Poems (1988), for which Wilbur received a second Pulitzer Prize. Wilbur’s honors include two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Frost Medal, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, the Gold Medal for Poetry from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation. He served as the 2nd Poet Laureate of the United States, and from 1961-1995 served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. While a professor at Wesleyan University, he helped found the Wesleyan University Press poetry series in 1959. Photo credit: Stathis Orphanos.