Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing

After reading Andrew’s Reflections From the Abyss: The God Quest of Poet Christian Wiman in July I was intrigued enough to search the web for Christian Wiman. Although Andrew was responding to Wiman’s latest book of essays, when I discovered he was also a poet I opted to buy his latest book of poetry instead of the memoir since I generally prefer poetry to essays. As it turned out, that might have been a mistake because after reading two of his essays online I think I prefer the essays to the poems themselves, or, more specifically, I preferred the poems when they’re imbedded in his essays. Although I struggled to find an earlier poem that I really liked in Wiman’s Every Riven Thing, except, perhaps, for the title poem, I found considerably more that I liked in the second half of the book. This one captures the kind of moment that I often try to record here:

IT IS GOOD TO SIT EVEN A ROTTING BODY

for W S. Di Piero

It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,

to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air— stagger toward you

and like a delicate helicopter
hover above your knee
until it finds you to be

not sweet but at least
not flinching, its hair—legs
on the hair of your leg

silvering
a coolness through you
like a soul of nerve.

What more can one ask for than to bask in sunlight, bees buzzing about? Even better if the bees recognize you only as part of nature, unthreatening, unafraid.

I did mark this poem when I read it at the beginning of the volume, but I appreciated it more after reading it in the context of Wiman’s essay where he ties the poem in with the modern problem of anxiety, calling modern American life a “collective ADHD.”

ALL GOOD CONDUCTORS

I.
O the screech and heat and hate
we have for each day’s commute,

the long wait at the last stop
before we go screaming

underground, while the pigeons
court and shit and rut

insolently on the tracks
because this train is always late,

always aimed at only us,
who when it comes with its

blunt snout, its thousand mouths,
cram and curse and contort

into one creature, all claws and eyes,
tunneling, tunneling, tunneling

toward money.

Although I loved Seattle most of my life, I decided to leave at 25 when the work commute became overwhelming. I ended up moving hundreds of miles south so I could get to work in less than 10 minutes. Few things are more mind-numbing, soul-defiling, than hours spent backed up on a freeway trying to get to a job that probably already is stressing you out.

Another online essay Gazing into the Abyss convinced me that I needed to add his My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer to my Amazon Wish List. Although I don’t agree with all of what Wiman has to say, I find plenty that makes me think, and that’s all that I demand from those that I read. For instance, this quotation:

I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existences so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.

made me wonder if that’s one of the reason I decided I’d rather spend my Sundays out enjoying nature rather than listening to a preacher lecture on the world’s many sins. It’s well worth your time to check out the online essays, if nothing more than to remind yourself once again that there is great stuff online for free if we can just stand to wade through all the other stuff to find it.

12 thoughts on “Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing

  1. Loren, I’m glad you took on his poetry, and I enjoyed the poems and your reflections about them here. I didn’t much cotton to the poems of his that I read in connection with his essays, and even less to the poems and poets he cited in them. They struck me as a bit too dense and not quite musical enough for my tastes. I think I’m essentially a lazy reader, not wanting to work too hard to decipher meanings and allusions. Maybe I figure it’s enough that I meet authors more than halfway by giving my attention and my time to their text, so my reward is the torture of thrashing about trying to figure out what the heck they’re getting at? It was revealing to me that in all Wiman’s discussion of poets that I came across, he never once mentioned Mary Oliver, a straight-shooting rhapsodic poet who goes right to the heart and the pleasure center of the brain, unmediated. I suspect she’s not academic enough for him, though I could be wrong. Thanks for this!

    • It probably helps that I majored in “Poetry,” particularly modern poetry, Andrew, so he doesn’t seem that dense to me. When you’ve been trained on the Metaphysical poets, like Herbert’s “The Pulley which he cites in one of his essays, he doesn’t seem too dense.

      It does bother me more that his poetry lacks that musical quality I love in poetry. At times his subject matter even reminds me of Roethke, but he can’t match Roethke’s poetic voice.

  2. That’s an interesting subject, the ‘musicality’ of poetry. I’m not too sure what it really means, however. I suppose it generally means something like harmonious sounds, lyricism etc. It seems to me (and I don’t know Wiman’s poetry except from your excerpts here) that he’s consciously playing off conventional musicality (with all its associative ‘tricks’ of alliteration and other poetically rhetorical devices, such as assonance, lists of 3 joined by ‘and’ etc.) against a blunt realistic shock (‘commute’, ‘shit’, ‘train is always late’, ‘toward money’). And he does it successfully, I feel.

    • Hopefully I did choose some of his “best” poems to present here, because that’s what I always intend to do, represent some of the best of the book I’ve just read, the part that most resonates with me and, I assume, will most resonate with my readers.

      I think the main point I was trying to make was just that I prefer his mediations to his poetry. They seem to me to be particularly special for anyone interested in the interrelationship of poetry and religion.

  3. This issue of poetry’s musicality is interesting indeed. I don’t experience it so much as harmonious sounds and lyricism as I do rhythm. The specific imagery is powerful but it’s rhythm that elevates it to song. Poetry that gallops or prances along like a colt gets my insides to perk up & then be swept up. Roethke was truly a master, as was Eliot and that acute sense of rhythmic narrative drive he had. I love just feeling the words bounce along with poets like that.

  4. Yes, I agree with you in part, Andrew! I’d neglected to mention rhythm. But rhythm is such a subtle, difficult-to-pin-down thing. You know it when you feel it. Narrative drive — ok — but some poems don’t want or need this. In fact they may deliberately subvert propelled narration and prancing rhythm in order for us to be shocked, to pause, to meditate, to reflect, to break things up etc. I think these poems of Wiman’s Loren quotes have really good rhythm, actually.

  5. Understood, Solitary! This issue of why we’re attracted to any piece of poetry or fiction is rather mysterious. Why do I pause at a certain line and go back to reread it just for the sheer sensual pleasure it affords? Sometimes it’s for the “melody,” as it were, sometimes for the rhythm, sometimes just for the sheer idea it conveys, even if it’s deficient in the melody/rhythm department. And as you suggest, that attraction is deeply personal. To each his/her own!

    This discussion put me in mind of particular lines from a poem I haven’t read in probably 25 years, but which apparently stayed with me as a deeply entrenched memory. So I went to my shelf and dusted the volume off here, just to see if has held up as my memory was suggesting to me, and I am happy to report that it has. So with your and Loren’s indulgence, I am going to share the relevant lines here, just for whatever fun and sliver of illumination it might cast on this discussion. The poem is “The Screed of the Flesh” by William Everson (aka “Brother Antoninus” in his monastic days). The last lines in particular prance right along—rhythmically reflecting its subject matter—in the style I alluded to earlier.

    I darkled the days of my childhood,
    The country roads of my young manhood,
    And the streets, the streets of my full maturity.
    All these, the darkling days of my ignorance.
    And did run, and reveled in the run.
    And knew not where I ran, nor why,
    Nor toward what thing I ran.

    I ran, but I had not understanding.

    As the greyhound runs, as the jackrabbit runs in the jimson;
    As the kestrel flies, as the swamphawk flies on the tules;
    As the falcon stoops in the dawn, as the owl strikes in the dusk;
    I flew, but I never knew the face of the Light that I flew in.

  6. Thanks for this, Andrew. Yes, the whole process of writing and appreciative reading is so mysterious, isn’t it? We can try to answer the ‘why’ to some extent by critical analysis, by awareness of the poet’s tricks and devices and how these are employed to create meaning and music, but ultimately the heart of it remains a beautiful mystery. And thank God it does, I would say.

    The Everson poem you quote perfectly illustrates a successful relationship between rhythm and subject matter. The first stanza is deliberately terse, halting, pausing, which creates a certain meditative, philosophical mood (the adult poet intellectually reflecting on his childhood) — four of the lines are endstopped, and note also how the addition of the adjectives ‘young’ and ‘full’ slow things down.

    Then the first two lines of the last stanza prance along, as you say, as though he’s been able to put aside his careful, adult reflectiveness, and reenter the spontaneous, unthinking, flowing, running-till-you-drop world of childhood. The lyrical third line slows things down again, which prepares us naturally, effortlessly and artfully for that final line, which is written from the standpoint of the self-conscious , God-conscious adult.

    The question which lingers is: is the unthinking child of nature nearer to God than the more intellectual and ostensibly ‘understanding’ adult?

  7. Well, this is a treat, my friends, so thank you. Hadn’t visited William’s work in ever so long, and I have been taken back to 1980, when his volume “The Veritable Years,” in which this poem appears, was gifted to me by a dear friend, and my world quaked…I went on to write about him, become his friend for a time until life circumstances drifted as they do, eventually came to see some of the weaknesses in his poetry, but looping back now I also see once again its great strengths, and also why the discussion of Wiman here caused William’s work to bubble right back up into my consciousness, though I hadn’t thought of him when I’d originally written my post on Wiman.

    You want to talk God-tormented? Oh, Wiman is a Norman Vincent Peale Happy Talker compared to poor William, whose poetic sensibility is splayed (sprayed?) across his work like the very blood of Christ. This poem is actually nine pages long, part of a trio that is succeeded by “The Screed of the Sand” and “The Screed of the Frost.” The first lines of “The Screed of the Flesh” go like this:

    I cried out to the Lord
    That the Lord might open the wall of my heart
    And show me the thing that I am.

    All of my life I walked in the world
    But I had not understanding.

    All of my life I gloried self,
    Singing the glory of myself;
    I let the exuberance of the self, the passion of self,
    Serve for my full sufficiency.

    Yes, pretty distinct reference to Whitman there, whom he admired and wrote a book about, even as these lines stand as a kind of repudiation. The Catholic god-humbled flesh-denier in William was always at war with his rhapsodic, world-and-sex-ecstatic self. It played out in both his poetry and his life, the latter of which included 18 years as a monk, that period broken when in the midst of a public reading, he threw off his monk’s robe and fled the stage with a young woman who had come to see him for counseling but had become his girlfriend. (Quiet and humble in person, William always had a tremendous flair for the dramatic.)

    Anyway, the subtleties of the poetic craft that you point out, Solitary, can sometimes be swallowed up by the drama of the content, which is as it should be, I suppose. But it is good to see him in command of the craft part as well, which I know he also took great pride in. Thanks for the sheer fun quotient of seeing what he’s doing in that regard.

    Meanwhile, that last question of yours? That’s a blogger’s dream topic, that one is. I may steal it from you, or else you can simply share, if you’re inclined! 🙂

  8. Oh dear, if that’s ‘The Screed of the Flesh’ I think I’ll forego the rest..! Come to think of it ‘darkled’ and ‘darkling’ appearing so close to each other are rather suspect too. I mean, Thomas Hardy used that word in ‘The Darkling Thrush’, but that was in 1900! The very title ‘The Veritable Years’ seems to me as if he hasn’t absorbed modernism or postmodernism at all — despite his association with the San Francisco avant-garde. I’ve just read about his adoration of Robinson Jeffers… and Jeffers is by far, by far the better poet!

What do you think?