Many readers may see Christian Wiman’s new poems only through the lens of death and dying once they know of Wiman’s medical condition: he has a serious blood disease (and he was raised in West Texas, another mortal wound).
Certainly, part of my own reaction (mostly delight) to Wiman’s West Texas poems is affected by having lived nearby the poet’s early stomping grounds. The mesquite, the cotton, the pumpjacks, the open fields and open sky, the dust devils—these are all part of my life now. I was unloading my car in a parking lot not too long ago when a dust devil struck me unaware, and five seconds later the entire car, along with my hair and all my clothing, was filled with ten thousand pieces of straw and as many chunks of dirt and sand.
There are plenty of Texans writing horrible poems about the Lone Star State: the Llano Estacado or the Alamo or personal struggles of herding cattle through Fort Worth. A connection with Wiman’s locale isn’t why I have to reread these poems. The first poem in the book, “Dust Devil” is a masterwork of form and function, not only because we connect with his pain, but primarily because the poem renews our faith in language and an understanding of our mortal condition. The poem is not an epiphany or a set of directions, but an ordering of whirling words that penetrate our existence and move beyond our existence toward what? What is that dust devil? The sum of its parts? The world? God? The Devil? Death? Time? Such a short poem, and such power. One almost never sees this:
Mystical hysterical amalgam of earth and wind
over and of
dust you go
through a field I know
by broken heart
for I have learned this art
wherein to live
is to move
wild untouchable toy
called by a boy
in a time when time stopped.
To read this poem is to be struck by a dust devil. Wiman gives us, pictorially, a vision of the phenomena itself, touching earth and sky (note the longer first and last lines which express these limits). The words swirl down the page to touch finally the end of the time of the poem, the end of the spinning of this mini-tornado. What does the dust-devil represent? It represents complicatedly, the poem, in not only its shape, but how words are untouchable, coherent, momentary, and illusory. It evokes the nature of God, of course, in the same way. But it is a “devil,” and this complicates the reading, doesn’t it? Yet it isn’t God or the Devil, rather it is “God’s top,” a “toy,” which takes us to Kafka’s philosopher who believes he could understand the world if he could just understand, via synecdoche, in one moment of stillness, a child’s spinning top. There’s the problem. You stop it, and it no longer is what it is. As Wiman says here, “to live / is to move.” Just like a poem, or a life, or God. It requires motion and the blur of the spirit. And a top is not only a toy. It means “height.” What is God’s height? It is both infinite and, in the Christian worldview, maybe around six feet high. The couplets rhyme evenly and unevenly throughout, cohering and blurring. We have earth, air, and fire (the moving “mind” of the poem), but no water: remember we’re in West Texas. We could go on and on with this poem, less than sixty words long.
There is a similarity with B.H. Fairchild’s work: the landscape of the Lower Midwest coupled with formal power and an ear for the lyric poem. And, like Fairchild, a deep interest in philosophy alongside quite a bit of local color. With Fairchild, one encounters a wider range of characters, whereas with Wiman we have more personal introspection and landscape. Nevertheless, the elegy, “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone,” offers a lovely tribute to a West Texas waitress due to its powerful evocation of this woman through not only place, but other people. What we get, through the rhyming couplet, is an ironic marriage of this “Unmarried, childless, ‘homely’” waitress with her customers whom she knows intimately. The poem risks a sentimental ending, but it somehow succeeds. The place setting described at the end of the poem completes this place and setting, the vast emptiness of an abandoned West Texas town likened to an empty plate, and a waitress, dead but not forgotten. Even as small towns like this one dry up due to corporate farming and the exigencies of our economic downturns and upturns, it is important that someone has recorded, in poetry that captures the language of the place, this rural life. Like any good elegy, the poem is a tribute not only to the person but the life and language of this person which affect us all. As with the measured verse of Seamus Heaney, these poems give us the sense that language and locale are cut from the same cloth.
The second section of the book is weaker, composed mostly of more disjointed or experimental poems. Sadly, some of them are only notes to unwritten poems. These grope the walls in the dark and never find the light switch: “Country in Search of a Symbol” is easy Western self-deprecation: “Let our flag be fearsome / Let our money mean even more to us….We vacuumed fat. We erected glitter.” “Do You Remember the Rude Nudists” is only an inside joke: “We were always hiking some hill toward some beauty some human meanness ruined. / We were always waiting too long to let ourselves be seen.” Calling a poem “Late Fragment” justifies neither its weak fragmentation nor its sentimentality. “Not Altogether Gone,” a long poem in seven sections on an aging character’s dementia arouses much less sympathy than disgust, and maybe that’s the point. Nevertheless, the demented stroll through maddening Wal-Mart is neither revelatory nor poignant, rather it is weakly obvious in its critique of big-box shopping and this old man lost amidst the train wreck of prescription drugs and American mass culture. A few of these poems in section two are sturdy lyrics that don’t rely on easy ironies. “Voice of One Head” is smoothly apocalyptic, authoritative and lyrical. And “Hermitage” is an extraordinary character sketch via Southwestern landscape that sings, finally,
from time a time to vanish
back into the sheer
shells and the strict mesquites, the heat-cracked
creekbed and the needless weeds, leaving us
to sift the glorious
ash of his existence, like a burned sermon.
Throughout the book and especially in the final section, Wiman explores this “mind of dying,” and the empty tomb is both God’s and his own. The best poems in the collection are deeply religious, calling toward God and his dreadful absence. Ultimately, the only acceptable response for Wiman is prayer to this challenging God: “a part of what man knows / apart from what man knows.” Perhaps what is most astonishing is that Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry Magazine, surrounded perhaps more than anybody by the cacophony of American poetry, has an ear for silence. Repeatedly in this collection, in his careful way, he presses his ear against the hive of belief. It takes a renewed child-like faith, and Wiman achieves it through memory and imagination and, one gets the feeling, grace.
While so many American poets these days write a sarcastic Charlie Brown “good grief” of a poem, Wiman’s West Texas (and also his brush with death) becomes for him “A good landscape for grief.” Sarcasm is, by its nature, dismissive and easily dismissed. Wiman speaking directly to the silence in measured words shatters these limits.
In “One Time,” Christian Wiman’s Southwest reveals to him that “to believe is to believe you have been torn / from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim.” In the twenty-first century, one usually cringes when a poet uses the term “abyss,” but with this use of the actual landscape, a canyon, the term is earned. The belief here does not emanate from a fluffy, easy vision. It is a salvation from the pit. At the heart of these poems made of ash and howling wind is the demanding gravity of the hope of resurrection: “as if there were a judge, / as if he had eyes, / and love.”