Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In much of his writing, Pankey grapples with the idea of redemption in the contemporary world, a condition that, for him, is intimately linked to the Christian concept of forgiveness. The word “grapples” is appropriately used in this context because of the intellectual honesty that characterizes his struggle with faith. Pankey demands that faith be described as that which is unknown, yet believed. He contests the notion that the knowledge one finds in faith is somehow rational and provable.

In the poem “If You Can,” which follows “As We Forgive Those” in Heartwood and may be considered a companion piece, Pankey addresses his daughter, describing his own mystical understanding of forgiveness and redemption to her. While he is perplexed by this encounter, he does indeed believe that he has been “saved.” However, it is nothing he fully understands. He says, somewhat bewildered, “But saved by whom or for what/ I don’t know.” “If You Can” turns on a father’s loving appeal to his daughter: “If you can, please, believe,” the poet says, but he makes no promise that with such belief the world will miraculously become an easier place in which to live. Rather, he tells her that the rocks that will bruise her heel will be no less hard; belief will merely give her the knowledge of forgiveness and show others “where the pain is.”

This faith and the hope that faithfulness may touch others seem to hover near the...

(The entire section is 447 words.)