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Thinking Out Loud

On a Roll: New Verse from Christian Wiman

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 09, 2015

New VerseThere are few things more exciting in the world of letters than a poet on a roll.

I felt this way when Louise Glück wrote the run of slim, achingly beautiful volumes beginning with “Ararat” (1990), that included “The Wild Iris” (1992), “Meadowlands” (1996), “The Seven Ages” (2001) and culminated in the incomparable "Averno" (2006). During that season of verse, I don't think anyone was writing better poetry in English than her, not even the magnificent Seamus Heaney, God rest his soul.

These days it is Christian Wiman who is on a roll. His “Every Riven Thing” was astounding. His My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), though prose, sings like verse wrung from the tempered soul. Now Wiman's Once in the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) speaks with a voice so original that comparisons to previous poets seem contrived. Yet I shall try. If there's any writer to whom I might compare him, it is Aeschylus, but only because the most haunting poem in this new volume (“Memory's Mercies”) seems to me (and this may be pure eisegesis) to echo the agonistic lyricism of Agamemnon. But that echo may be purely in my own brain, i.e., contrived.

Wiman takes us home, and not just because home for some of us was shaped by the vast empty features of the Texas landscape. He could just as easily have taken us to the plains of Kansas or the forests of Oregon or the shores of Troy, I suspect, if any of these places had been home for him. He does what great poets do. He takes us deep into a place, deep into a common experience, making the familiar unfamiliar so we can see our lives anew. He locates us so as to dislocate us. He forces us into our own skin by inviting us to feel the world through his.

He has been compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. There are grounds for such a comparison. But, reading Wiman, I do not find myself hearing the voice of another poet so much as listening to a voice speaking from within myself, yet speaking to me from outside too. Like words given to my own doubts - and my hopes - this verse shares secrets buried I thought only inside me. How humbling to discover they belong to others, maybe many others. How humbling, and yet what consolation.

There's no better place to start than with a few lines from "Memory's Mercies."

Memory's mercies
mostly aren't

but there were
I swear
veined with grace

like a lucky
electrically over

whatever water
there was -

Or, from "Prayer" with which he opens the volume:

even now,
my prayer

is that a mind

by anxiety
or despair

might find

a trace
of peace.

And, then, there are the outrageous passages that surprise you, that lift up your heart, the way life and grace do, as in the beginning passages of "We Lived":

We lived in the long intolerable called God.
We seemed happy.

I don't mean content I mean heroin happy,
donkey dentures,

I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering
from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws

I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels
divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture

I mean
to be mean.

Dear Lord forgive the love I have
for you and your fervent servants.

I don't want to stop quoting him. You won't want to stop reading him.

I pray he won't stop writing, not while he is on a roll.

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