South Bend, Indiana

Between the house and tallow crumbling

Wall of the disused carriage house, a line

Of apple trees in blossom, grayed with rain,

Is “smoking” petals for the death of Spring.


Or that’s the verb I found somewhere in Tennyson

To speak of a mediaeval April not

Unlike this one, with all the fertile rot

And antique bric-a-brac in the back garden.


The day is cold and a stone seraphim

Awaits with vine-wracked wings upon their flight,

Observing while he may the petals’ white

Penumbra gathered in the grass’s thin


Grip.  There, it intersects with branches cast

Into a circular midday shadow: Volatile

Diagram sketched of silhouette and petals

Whose figure-eight weaves present, future, past,


In what has neither end nor origin.

I’ve milled about these trees for five months now,

While out to smoke a cigarette, and frowned

At wintering branches and the tasteless sin


Of wire fences, industrial concrete

Impinging on what otherwise might seem,

Not Eden, but some genteel type of dream.

Time has sullied taste till, save in discrete


Borders, most pastorals are just fantasies

These days.  Nor can stone angels fill the role

Of resurrecting fearful miracles

From the tomb of three centuries’ industry.


Between crass pessimism and my house,

The row of dwindling clouds of blossom stands.

Seventy years ago, there was a bland

Garden for servants here, and servants housed


In what are now my rooms.  The novelty

Of English brick, kiln-baked tile, a view

Of that slouch mansion now called Tippecanoe,

Evoke this house’s extinct pedigree.


With the decay of Studebaker and steel,

An age of maids and chauffeurs passed.  South Bend

Became a town of decorous fortunes spent,

Where late-Victorian houses are “a steal.”


So in this last fistful of years, new owners

Have tried with copied statues, period plants,

And trees that shed a vintage radiance,

To renovate this tomb to all that’s former.


I’ve breathed its dust in, taken careful note

How plastic urns break in the snow; how I

Can merely mock at stone’s sad history;

Pronounce its fate, perhaps, but just in quotes.


When sun is overhead and wind has blown,

A row of trees both green and bare with Spring

Will cast no shadow, and the petaled ring

Will have dispersed across the sinking ground.


In our tradition, there is such thing as a regional poet, but I never set out write like one.  That said, the landscape of South Bend and of Mishawaka always struck me as the most compelling of subjects, always just themselves, but also always the adequate symbol for the bind into which we have gotten ourselves.  Here, I tried to contrast and combine the permanent and the evanescent: the petal-and-shadow figure of infinity asserted by the Spring in a moment’s fortuity; the smoke of literary permanence, which streams off into the smoky and arcane air of an increasingly distant past; the smoke nonetheless of a permanent word, a fading meaning, and the smoke of some occupant of the remanents and ruins of a once hopeful Victorian spirit.

Those who know Elthan Place and Mello Place will also know that the former was the guest house, the latter the servants’ quarters, both occupying the southwest corner of the Studebaker family’s estate in the old South Bend.  They sit now as apartment buildings (which I have mentioned on FPR before), treated to the care I mention in the poem.  This poem combines the two places (in both of which I lived for a number of years), and takes a few other liberties, though the angels, urns, and cyclone fencing are all true as true can be.  I have other poems set in this place, which I shall share as they appear in various magazines in the years ahead.

This poem first appeared in the July issue of ChroniclesCopies of my limited edition book of poems, Four Verse Letters (2010), remain available — oh, ever so available! — and you can get a copy by writing to

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James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.