Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

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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 center of “As We Forgive Those,” linked to “the maple that ruled/ [Pankey’s] house half the day in sunlight, half in shade,” an image that the poet uses to great effect to conclude his meditation on forgiveness. In the poem’s final lines, Pankey tells of the day he walked out beneath the formidable maple and finally understood the weight of its shadow, how it “swept every inch of what we owned.” He realizes that such immature pranks as his trespassing for apples, his stealing of green tomatoes to drop from trees on unsuspecting pedestrians, and his hiding behind juniper bushes to spy upon others were insignificant compared to the knowledge of his family’s and his own precarious position in the world.

While the poet tells readers that during that year he learned the word “omniscient” in school, as a boy his knowledge of what the word meant was woefully inadequate. Only after his prayer for knowledge is answered does he come to know that to be forgiven is to be covered in the darkness of this world while seeing to the light that lies beyond, or, as Pankey explains while looking backward, “When it covered me I knew I was forgiven.”