Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Part 1/5
The poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” by Richard Wilbur ends like this:
“Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”
While reading Let The Great World Spin, I was reminded of this poem for two reasons. First, I just spent five and a half weeks at Governor’s School studying this poem and others under the instruction of North Carolina poet Chuck Sullivan, so poetry is on my mind! Second, as far as I can tell from its first 72 pages, Let The Great World Spin is about finding that difficult balance… In this case, balance between poetry and prose and balance between religion and human desire. In fact, the novel opens with a scene of an acrobat preparing to tightrope-walk between the Twin Towers in New York City, 1974 — a situation in which balance is not only difficult, but essential.
McCann strikes a difficult balance between poetry and prose with his writing style, which is incredibly evocative and full of imagistic metaphor. He writes from the perspective of a young man named Ciaran who has recently emigrated from Ireland and followed his brother, Corrigan, to the Bronx. Corrigan is an eternally-giving religious man, almost a saint, who is trying to find God in the gutter of America’s dirtiest city. The incredible aspect of this novel is that the way McCann illustrates the Bronx does make it holy. When describing trash blowing around the streets, an ordinarily unappealing sight, McCann writes, “If you watched the rubbish for a while you could tell the exact shape of the wind” (31). That line blew my mind because it sanctifies garbage and gives it a purpose/value that is beyond its original worth, which is exactly what Corrigan is trying to do with the Bronx. McCann’s writing style is poetic and generous, which mimics the behavior of his characters — genius. Furthermore, the way McCann describes the Bronx itself brings its neon-colored, dirt-stained, glittering hopelessness pulsing to the forefront of your mind (which is my way of saying it’s evocative). McCann writes,
“The sunset was the color of muscle, pink and striated gray… Gangs of kids hung out on street corners. Traffic lights were stuck on permanent red. At fire hydrants there were huge puddles of stagnant water. A building on Willis had half collapsed into the street. A couple of wild dogs picked their way through the ruin. A burned neon sign stood upright… homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire. They looked like men on a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America” (48).
Countless times throughout the novel (12, 24, 31, …), McCann similarly paints such a vivid scene that he puts you there, in the Bronx with Ciaran and Corrigan. He uses details so obscure that they make his writing original, because nobody else would describe the same place in exactly the same way. This style keeps his writing human and raw — he writes a breathing book of observations equally mundane and poetic. Earlier, I used the phrase “imagistic metaphor” to qualify the elements of style that allow McCann to balance poetry and prose. I’m not even sure if this is a real vocabulary term, but if it isn’t, I invented it for McCann. He writes, “A row of goldfish bowls sat in the window, the thin orange bodies spinning in aimless circles” (46). This detail could be taken at surface value, but the way McCann describes the goldfish hints at a greater meaning — thin, orange bodies fruitlessly trying to escape the confines of their world sounds much like the spray-tanned, starving prostitutes whom Corrigan is desperately trying to preserve for God (and, after all, Jesus was called a fisher of men). So the phrase is a metaphor — it says one thing and means another, but it is also an imagistic metaphor because it is so easy to see the little golden fish, trying to escape the drowning effects of their tiny blue bowls. What makes McCann so great, both as an author and as a poet, is that he sees and describes the world in two ways: as what it is, and also as what it could be. His writing strikes both. Another delicate balance.
“And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits”
Richard Wilbur may well have been describing McCann’s Corrigan when he wrote these lines, because Corrigan struggles mercilessly to balance his pledge of “chastity, poverty, [and] obedience” (21) with his desire to give in to “dark habits.” Religion and human desire (namely the desire to be with a woman, as he has fallen in love with a nurse named Adelita) are constantly at war within him. McCann phrases Corrigan’s suffering best when he writes,
“He smiled. Something had gone wild in his eyes. He put his hands up close to the ceiling fan, as if he were about to thrust them in there, right up into the whirling blades, leave his hands there, watch them get mangled” (37).
More than anything, McCann toys with the idea of Corrigan losing balance. Falling off the tightrope. Going mad. Corrigan rushes to love sinners and forgive the transgressions of the dark and seedy, but he, a source of light, cannot allow himself to fully love a woman for fear that he would be breaking his vow to a “logical” God (50). Corrigan would agree with Richard Wilbur that balance is difficult… In fact, he believes it is impossible to reconcile a higher power with his own earthly desires. So, the theme of the book thus far asks — is it?