Wrestling with Nowlan’s Angel

by Elizabeth Bieman

     Far more is “up-ended” in Alden Nowlan’s playful little poem, “The Anatomy of Angels”, than Jacob. For the academic mind at least — since for all this poet’s protestations of unprofessorial status1 he shows here a highly learned and traditional persona — Nowlan sets up literary expectations in his title and first line only to unsettle them vigorously before incorporating much that is related to their matter into his complex of meaning.

     The disparate biblical narratives that underlie the action are subjected to the most obvious conflation and distortion: the bulk of what here ensues will elaborate on this awareness. But tricks involving the figure of Jacob are not the only means by which the poetic creator off-balances his psychic adversary and beneficiary, the reader who is trying to pin down his meaning. The linkage of the word “Anatomy” to “Angels” calls up, at the very least, the ghost of Donne, perhaps in the company of Milton and Henry Vaughan.2

     The ambience is certainly of the seventeenth century. Donne’s most immediately memorable angels inhabit his ironic love-song “Air and Angels”. The word “Anatomy”, too, chimes with a Donne title: “An Anatomy of the World, The First Anniversary”, the first of the elegies for Elizabeth Drury. In these poems of Donne’s, as in much of the tradition from which he draws, matters of love, life, and the commerce between the human and the divine, are best understood against a backdrop of hierarchical thinking that owes more to the Platonic heritage than to the early Hebrew thought that is to be explored.

     The two backdrops, imported inevitably to the modern poem through its title and its substance, can contribute much to the grasping of Nowlan’s significance in his eight very rich lines:

The Anatomy of Angels

Angels inhabit love songs. But they’re sprites
not seraphim. The angel that up-ended
Jacob had sturdy calves, moist hairy armpits,
stout loins to serve the god whom she befriended,

and was adept at wrestling. She wore
a cobra like a girdle. Yet his bone
mending he spent some several tedious weeks
marking the bed they’d shared, with a great stone.

The Jacob of the Bible and the divine messenger with whom he had to do are not directly mirrored in these lines, yet certain connections can and should be made. The patriarch, we recall, is remembered in many ways: as trickster, besting Isaac his father, Esau his brother, and Laban his father-in-law through a variety of ruses; as lover of Rachel, dogged enough in his devotion to the girl he met by an Aramean well to serve twice the bargained number of years for bride-price; and most of all as Israel himself, father of the sons who fathered the twelve tribes. “The line of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob” was to fan out in response to Yahweh’s gifts and behests until the seed of the patriarchs inherited the earth, and through it all families of the earth came to be blessed [Gen. 28:14]. The more obvious sexuality of Nowlan’s Jacob, then, has genuine roots in the early Hebrew tales.

     Yet neither of the two accounts of Jacob’s commerce with numinous beings presents directly sexual particulars. The better known, of course, that in Genesis 28, follows the young Jacob as he journeys away from his family, having just won his father’s blessing by guile. He falls asleep in a stony field, and dreams of a ladder set between earth and heaven upon which “behold, the angels of God [are] ascending and descending”. At the very top stands the Lord affirming Jacob’s place in the patriarchal line, and reaffirming this covenant with the seed of Abraham. The dream-encounter is marked by no physical struggle; but upon awakening Jacob feels such fear and awe that he names the place Beth-El (house of God), sets up in propitiation the stone that has served as his pillow, pours a libation of oil upon this new altar, and vows fidelity to the God of his fathers. Ultimately, sexual dimensions do surround this tale of Jacob’s first view of angels: the covenantal promises here renewed must be realized through procreation; and the narrative setting as arranged by the priestly editors of the Pentateuch reinforces such significance. Jacob’s journey was initiated in his father’s command to go and find a wife of the proper lineage, and in the bloc of narrative immediately following the dream sequence Jacob meets Rachel by her tribal well.

     The poem has more recognizable analogies to the later encounter in which Jacob wrestles all night long at the ford Jabbok with “a man” of great strength and mystery [Gen. 32:22-30]. Upon prevailing, Jacob wins a new identity in the name of “Israel”, and a blessing from his antagonist; yet he sustains a wound in the thigh that will mark him for the rest of his life. Although at no point here is “the man” called an angel, Jacob sees him as so much more than mere man that he calls the place “Peniel” [face of God] “for” he says “I have seen God face to face”.4

     The nocturnal wrestling in the poem and the wound implied in “his bone /mending”, together with the commemorative stone from the earlier dream-vision, provide clear enough links back to Genesis, but nothing in the biblical narratives provides grounding for the transsexual operation Nowlan performs upon his angel, for the cryptic phrase “the god whom she befriended”, or for the “cobra” that the angel “wore / . . . like a girdle”. What is to be made of these novelties and reversals?

     If we start with a female and a snake, earlier Genesis provides some obvious associations. Eve, progenitress of mankind, was created to serve her God, as well as her Adam, through her stout loins; Eve’s sexuality, tainted after the fall, marks her for sorrow in childbirth and subjection to man. Little wonder fallen Eves thereafter hate snakes [Gen. 3:15-16]. But Nowlan’s female, sturdy and earthy as an Eve, wears her symbolically phallic girdle in insouciant comfort—there is no hint at all that she finds it either fearful or restricting. If Jacob be implied (as he certainly is in some senses) by “the god whom she befriended” her female role obviously suits her right down to the ground beneath her “sturdy calves”. This angel, then, seems to know nothing of the fall. Nonetheless death, the consequence of the fall, is implied in the specifically designated “cobra”, and may also be implied syntactically in the otherwise inexplicable “yet” that introduces the allusion to Jacob’s mysterious wound.

     Whatever the evocations through the serpent, Nowlan stops clearly short of bringing the fall narratives to the centre of his poetic wrestling-ring. Something else, more pagan and primitive, is imported even more strikingly through this cobra. “Like a girdle” the snake encloses the torso of the angel — the casual simile, if we try to visualize with some precision, puts the snake’s tail into its mouth. The uroboric serpent, in emblematics, is always potentially androgynous.5 But an uroboric cobra, tail enfolded in the concavity of a hooded head, makes the most explicit suggestion possible of the way this angel takes of befriending her god — surely a god of fertility. In the receptive imagination the emblem prevails over the dangers implied in the cobra: the lifeforce of the generative cycle, the power worshipped through the gods of early Israel’s neighbours, is working here conquering death.

     Paradoxically, the force that renews the race renders the individual mortal and vulnerable in his flesh. Jacob’s wound is of deep significance to all accounts. Nowlan’s wrestler sustains a bone wound, inconsistent with the biblical sources which are themselves inconsistent. “The hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint” by one account [Gen. 32:55], and alternatively, the mysterious wrestler at the ford “touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank” [32:32]. Any good biblical commentary can satisfy curiosity as to the possible historical significance of these variants; for our purposes it is enough to note that tissues could need mending after either dislocation or withering, but for a bone to need mending a prior break or amputation is required. Could Adam’s rib, then, be on the periphery of Nowlan’s arena alongside Eve’s serpent? If granted, it must still be recognized as subsidiary to the central spectacle: the image of Adam’s rib implies a detraction of the female that will not jibe with the mystery and power Nowlan’s Jacob cele brates when he erects the “great stone”.

     Although he was troubled, during those “tedious weeks”, by the vulnerability of his flesh and the necessity of hard labour, both consequences of Adam’s fall, this Jacob seems like his loving adversary to have little or no sense of sin. What Nowlan is about, here, may be seen in sharper relief if we think of one other poem he has rooted deep in Genesis, his “Beginning”.6 After their initial “brave” sexual “bliss”, the parents of that poem suffer a bitter bondage to “darkening shame”. Ironically, the last words of the piece, “Thus was I made”, show issuing from that taste of, and loss of, Eden a new life—the life of a poet who will imaginatively recover, and confer lasting vitality upon, their bliss in this wry verbal memorial. Like the self condemning parents, conditioned so pitiably by inherited sin-consciousness, no blissless man has hope ever again of seeing God face to face in a garden. But in his journeying to find his wife, and in wrestling with fleshly mystery in the dark, the blissful Jacob finds that the divine presence may indeed be felt, even in a stony field or at a watery boundary.

     We can see, then, that in up-ending his biblical sources Nowlan is faithless only to the letter of the Law: the affirmation of generative force under God is perfectly consonant with the spirit, the ethos, of early Hebrew lore. The imposition upon the fall narratives of a prurient distaste for sexuality, and the equation of primal sin with forbidden sexual pleasure, is the legacy of a later period in biblical history, a time when Platonic hierarchies in thought were grafted onto a more primitive body of myth.7

     In transition from the biblical geneses of Nowlan’s text towards the Donnean analogies, we should glance back at two words in the opening lines. The angels that “inhabit love songs”, we are told, are “sprites / not seraphim”. Neither word fits easily in the early Hebrew milieu, although, as we shall see later, one accommodates itself readily to Donne. Cognate with spirit”, which is a biblical word,8 “sprite” to modern ears implies some lively, amoral imp or daemon and not a messenger or breath of God. “Seraphim”, on the other hand, at least belong to the later Old Testament world. Literally “the burning ones”, they make their most vivid appearance in the throne vision of the prophet Isaiah [Iss. 6:2-7], a vision that bears no resemblance at all to Nowlan’s tale. What effect, then, derives from the oblique suggestion that Jacob’s sturdy angel is of the seraphim? Initially it serves to trip up any expectation established through the title that this will be a poem in the seventeenth century mode concerning airy or ethereal beings, and it locates the action neatly in Hebrew scripture. Then, whimsically and ultimately seriously, the word can be fitted to the hairy being who be sets Jacob. She too is certainly fiery, if not in precisely the same sense; and she somehow does serve as God’s messenger, his ministering answer to human wish or need. Whether the ambiguity of “the god whom she befriended” is tipped towards Jacob (as seen by the fiery female) or towards ecstatic mystery (as seen by Jacob in the bed they share) matters very little. Angels ascended and descended (in that order) in Jacob’s first Biblical dream vision. Here divine force is released and realized in the very human wrestling-mating — both parties to the encounter participate in it fully.

     And now on to Donne, to elaborate the suggestion made at the outset of this essay: that an academic awareness of at least one “love song” inhabited by angels can provide an added dimension to our reading of Nowlan’s little comedy.

     “Air and Angels” on first consideration provides more contrast than similitude to “The Anatomy of Angels”. Articulating the Neoplatonic common places of his time, Donne’s lover speaks of a love initially so etherial that it can be known, only as angels are known, as if “in a shapeless flame”. But, the lover argues, since he is human and his soul has “limbs of flesh”, his love, child of that soul, must descend to “take a body too”. And just as angels de scend to rule a heavenly sphere or to assume “face and wings / Of air”, his etherial love wishes to take on “the sphere” (by implication “airy”) of the lady’s love. The final twist of Donne’s argument reads thus:

Just such disparity
As is ’twixt air and angels’ purity,
’Twixt women’s love, and men’s will ever be.9

Whether understood as a playful disparagement of woman, as it certainly is on the most obvious level, or as an esoterically couched proposition that the lovers converge to form a unity greater than either alone,10 the poem de pends heavily upon the hierarchical image-language of an earlier time. Donne’s angels, whether aerial, etherial or celestial, have a much lighter specific gravity than the grossly weighted, cobra-girdled sharer of Jacob’s stony bed.

     At this point we can begin to see that, using quite disparate vocabularies, Donne and Nowlan have been going about some of the same poetic business. Each poem is first of all a jeu desprit reversing what is expected of love songs and poems about angels, and generating quite enough fun to justify its own existence. Yet each prods the reader further to contemplate something of the way love’s deity fits male to female, enlivening the otherwise moribund flesh.

     The Jacob of early scripture, like Nowlan’s Jacob, knows nothing of the hierarchical thinking that informs Donne’s language: sacredness for each Jacob is essentially a mysterious otherness, but an otherness that has palpably loving commerce with man. Donne’s poem — dependent as it is on a hier archical vocabulary that, like the creation and fall myth, tends to debase the image of natural woman whenever it is employed — manifests no effort in avoidance of such derogatory effect. This in spite of Donne’s capability, as love poet elsewhere, to accord a mistress of flesh and blood all the sturdy dig nity a modern “Ms” could demand. Nowlan’s poem, in contrast, belongs to a different age: the matter-of-factness With which Jacob sets about commemo rating his encounter is neither hierarchical nor obviously patriarchal. The very primitive dimensions of the action paradoxically are those that should gladden even a radically feminist reader.

     We must gather the threads of argument now by tying them back to yet another beginning, this the first noun in Nowlan’s title. The word “Anatomy”, we have seen, in association with “Angels” and “love songs” evokes the seventeenth century. In that period the word was often used to signify a literary analysis. In that sense it works very well to label this literary artifact. Yet once the disembodied (or airily-formed) “sprites” anatomized in earlier song have been dismissed, the word is free to work in another sense — irreverently and explicitly in connection with the angelic wrestler’s calves, armpits, and loins. Then, when applied to a catalogue of the human body, “Anatomy” provokes the memory of its root sense, the dissection of a cadaver after the departure of the animating spirit. With this sense to the fore, we are reminded how strange it is to encounter an “angel” that has, or is, such a gross yet living body.

     The realization will dawn, as the relationship of spirit and body in conventional thought is pondered, that if Nowlan’s word “sprite” has no place in a biblical habitat, it is certainly at home with Donne. Not in a love song but in a devotional sonnet Donne dissects the microcosm of man:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite,
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, oh, both parts must die 12

The painful sin-consciousness of this, and others of the Holy Sonnets, matches the fearful shame of the parents in Nowlan’s “Beginning”.

     No such sense of a fallen self, internally divided and divided from God, troubles Jacob in any of the literary performances we have been investigating. From the Nowlan word-game the reader gains in sanity if not in conventional sanctity: he is reminded against the backdrops of the fall myth and the history of angelology that the sacred may be manifested in the most physical of encounters. Primitive man, like Jacob, was always at home with such a realization. Modern man has been recovering — rarely wisely and of ten frenetically — vestiges of that older faith. Such faith has been kept alive more often in myth and poetry than in the biblically-rooted churches.13   In this modern tale of Jacob, Nowlan does much to offer absolution to the strait-laced and troubled lovers of “Beginning”. He lays the ghost of the parents’ guilt by elevating the spirit of life in a fleshy messenger.

     Moving to yet another Donne poem, we find the world as cadaver to be the extravagant controlling conceit of “An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary”. The soul of the world, once incarnate in the young Elizabeth Drury, is declared to have fled with her death. The mundane corpse decays now apace. Through a play of discourse too elaborate to outline here the poet contrives at length to moderate his despairing utterance, and to achieve a limited affirmation. “Verse” and “song” can hold souls and bodies, subject though they are to deadly separation, in a creative memory-relationship, even if man’s words are powerless to repeal his repeated falls and to conquer the inevitable grave. Towards the end the poet links himself to Moses, whose five books of the Law yield both the stories of Jacob we have been examining in the one backdrop, and the Deuteronomic song of victory in voked in this other context — a song ordained by a thwarted but merciful God to safeguard his wayward people as it reminds them of his providential care:

God spake
To Moses, to deliver unto all,
That song: because he knew they would let fall
The Law, the prophets, and the history,
But keep the song still in their memory.
Such an opinion (in due measure) made
Me this great office boldly to invade.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Verse hath a middle nature: heaven keeps souls,
The grave keeps bodies, verse the fame enrols.’14

Thus, at the end of “An Anatomy of the World”, poetry provides a median term between the poles the fall has sundered. Poet and prophet are seen to be about the same business; but the poet gains the higher place here, in the reminder that Moses was commanded to accomplish through “song” a middle-victory where prophecy was destined to fail.

     So also for Nowlan, poetic and prophetic roles come very close. He has frequently confessed to an early ambition to be a prophet; he must already have been writing when he was thinking in those terms, since he says he cannot recall a time when he did not write; the adult poet still declares with no embarrassment that he seeks to communicate truth through his poetry, and that he uses it to express “a very strong, almost primitive, sense of the sacredness of objects and things”.15   The ambition towards prophecy in that biblically-literate but otherwise lightly-learned little boy has been realized through metamorphosis. The man who recalls the ambition is not at all naive; nor is he innocent of the long tradition of English literature and the inherited Neoplatonic image-thinking that informs it. If his conscious literary roots went no further back than D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas, both of whom he acknowledges as influential for him at certain stages,16 he would still be through them the heir of the movements of thought we have been examining in Donne.

     But I do not propose here to entrap myself into making, or to excuse myself elaborately for not making, the claim that in naming his “Anatomy of Angels” Nowlan was intentionally inviting the exercise here undertaken. Nowlan himself has sanctioned this sort of enterprise, if it does fly away from his conscious intention, by suggesting that the only criticism worth much is that which tells the poet something he did not know about his own work.17

     Enough to say, perhaps, that Nowlan, in “The Anatomy of Angels”, speaks as a prophet of mystery. He transmits to us a very modern, and very primitive, affirmation of the power of generative encounter to inspirit the otherwise dying flesh of fallen man. In that, the poem itself resembles Jacob’s up-ended monolith. A thing very obviously earthy celebrates God’s vital presence in his creation.18


  1. “I enjoy [intellectual games] so much . . . that if I’d gone on to acquire a Ph.D instead of dropping out of elementary school I might have ended up as the most egregious pedant in Canada”, Alden Nowlan, “Something to Write about,” Canadian Literature, 68-69 (Spring-Summer, 1976), 7-12. And, “Acorn, Purdy, myself and Newlove, are about the only Canadian poets of my generation that aren’t also professors”, “Alden Nowlan,” interviewed by John Metcalf, Canadian Literature, 63 (Winter, 1975), 8-17.[back]

  2. Most obviously through “Air and Angels”, which, with the other Donne works to be considered, is available with useful apparatus in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed. A.J. Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971). If Milton is invoked, it is through Raphael’s learned instruction of Adam concerning the ways, intellectual, social, and erotic, of angels in the middle books of Paradise Lost. Vaughan uses “Jacob’s bed” frequently as an epiphanic centre: see Henry Vaughan, The Complete Poems, ed. Alan Rudrum (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), especially note, 531.[back]

  3. The poem, originally published in Under the Ice (Toronto: Ryerson, 1961), 35, is readily available in Poetry Of Mid-Century, ed. Milton Wilson (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1964), 219.[back]

  4. The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971), 24.[back]

  5. See, for instance, JE. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (Philosophical Library: New York, 1962) 235, 274; and Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (New York: Harper, 1962) 414-8. [back]

  6. Poetry of Mid-Century, 215.[back]

  7. Palestinian culture was forcefully Hellenized under the Seleucid emperors in the second and first centuries B.C. For brief elaboration, see Interpreter. . . Commentary, 1034, or for a more extensive treatment, Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1966) 528-536.[back]

  8. George Johnston, in The Spirit Paraclete in the Gospel of John (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) Chaper I, offers a clear exposition of related words and concepts in Old and New Testaments.[back]

  9. Smith, 41.[back]

  10. Smith’s notes to “Air and Angels”, 353-5, explicate the poem in serious Neoplatonic terms, but take no note of its lighter dimensions.[back]

  11. See above, page 6.[back]

  12. Smith, 310-1.[back]

  13. Contemporary theologians here, as often in the past, are ahead of most occupants of pulpit and pew. However out of phase with the religion of Nowlan’s Maritime boyhood, “Anatomy” is quite consonant with the thinking of at least two theologians writing re cently in Canada. See, for instance, Charles Davis, Body us Spirit (New York: The Sea- bury Press, 1976): “Sex in its genuine form as sensuous love is sacramental in its power to move persons out of self-centeredness into an openness in which they meet God”, 142; and Aarne Siirala, “Theology and the unconscious” (Presidential Address, 1976, to the Canadian Theological Society, printed in Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses Vol. 6, No. 6 [1976-7] 607-623): “The human is — seen as growing in the image of the divine when [male and female] organizations of the same potentialities of life begin to complete each other”.[back]

  14. Smith, 232-3; Deuteronomy 31: 19-21; 32: 1-43.[back]

  15. Metcalf interview, 16.[back]

  16. Metcalf, 9-10.[back]

  17. Anne Greer, “Confessions of a Thesis Writer . . .” , Fiddlehead, 81 (1969), 22[back]

  18. “Do you believe in Immanence?” Metcalf asked Nowlan in the interview cited. “Yes . . . very strongly” was the reply. But the question had been answered many times over before it was directly posed, not least in “The Anatomy of Angels”.[back]