Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Christian Wiman, _Every Riven Thing_

I READ WIMAN'S My Bright Abyss about a year ago, and re-read it this summer as part of a group, so it seemed like a good time to try his poetry. He included quite a few of these in My Bright Abyss, so I knew more or less what to expect, but they still came as a bit of a surprise.

Wiman's having outed himself, so to speak, as a Christian believer led me to expect all his poems to be roughly of the sort that we hear Garrison Keillor read in the morning: close observation of an ordinary scene, a slightly more graceful version of ordinary speech, a teaspoon of affirmation lightly concealed in the close. Wiman can do that sort of thing--"From a Window" is a good example.

But his usual vein is more wrought, more knotted, more clotted. This is from "Hermitage":

                He found
shells brittling back toward their sea,
leaves and twigs more sun
than themselves, and a thousand other fragments
eternity was tugging at,
and wrought it all into a tenuous, tenacious form
as if he were founding ruins--
a man who himself seemed half-born.
half hewn, his skin mapped
with damage, sweat slicking the juts and
cliffs of flesh, eyes so like the sky
he seemed at once all-seeing and all skull.

Wiman's music is not always that percussive and emphatic, but the above is not an atypical passage. There's something of Browning's or Donne's willingness to make noise. Or Hopkins's willingness to fracture the poem's surface, creating a kaleidoscopic effect:

until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self
withers in me like a salted slug

He seems to want to connect with the tradition of religious poetry that gives itself permission to be difficult, something you have to wrestle with--Donne, Hopkins, Eliot (or Herbert, who is a shade more accessible than Donne but not at all easy, if you ask me).  The title poem in Every Riven Thing, for instance, is nothing but knuckle balls, its statements looking plain enough until you take a swing at one and find yourself whiffing.

That teaspoon of affirmation is usually there...much more than lightly concealed, though.

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