Every Riven Thing: Poems by Christian Wiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Cautions first: some language. Basically, here's a litmus test: if you can spend ten minutes in a store decorated by Thomas Kinkade without wanting to put a chair or small person through a wall, you may not like this book. If you can have a sober, intelligent conversation with a man about his imminent death and remain unaffected by it, you will be unimpressed. If you use the English language to convey points the way the federal government uses money to fix the public school system (just use more until something gets better) then this book will downright annoy you. But if you don't fit these categories then this book may well level you like Hiroshima. It's hard to maintain cotton-candy illusions about the world in the face of a reality so stark as terminal cancer. It's hard to see any real beauty if you keep your eyes desperately shut for fear of catching a glimpse of something that may be harsh, for fear of seeing beauty born of blood. For not all loveliness is gentle, and mercy's scalpel cuts deep as any sword. This book, to steal from N. D. Wilson and Jeffers, is as beautiful as a forest in flame; the sky merciless blue, and the earth merciless black. And there's nowhere to hide.
But Christian Wiman's main topic is not death. It's rarely even mentioned. No, his topic is life, and its wonder; life, and its absurdities; life, and its approaching end. The book is full of lines such as the following:
I loved his ten demented chickens
and the hell-eyed dog, the mailbox
shaped like a huge green gun.
I loved the eyesore opulence
of his five partial cars...
(which is in my opinion one of the best opening lines ever written for a poem)
And the engine-eyed atheists screaming reason
It should, while evoking eternity, cry time,
like a priest at meat.
his antic frantic penny-ante-Ahab stabs of madness
two cloudminded miles over Iowa
and made of the air an unguent made of them
A shadow on the water soft as thought
rock's archaic ache
an inchoate incarnate thought
Welcome to the hell of having everything.
and so, so many others. And these are biopsies, snippets extracted to be studied, not the overarching bodies (how unmodern a poet, to write poems about things). This is a man who writes, not like Dumas, not like Chesterton, birthing brilliance and trusting it to raise itself, nor like Lewis, ever forgetful of the words he had written. This is a man that writes with the desperation born out of a dying desire to leave one lasting impression on this earth beyond his tomb, a man that writes as if far more than merely his life were resting on his words, a man who bestows upon every ink-splash on the page more tumultuous meaning than most poets could wrestingly extract from their own lives. Facing death. To illustrate, I'll leave you with two final quotes, one of them a complete poem.
2047 Grace Street
I do not know how to come closer to God
except by standing where a world is ending
for one man. It is still dark,
and for an hour I have listened
to the breathing of the woman I love
beyond my ability to love. Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other, the grief
beyond which, please God, she will live
and thrive. And praise to the light that is not
yet, the dawn in which one bird believes,
crying not as if there had been no night,
but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
The Mind of Dying
God, let me give you now this mind of dying
fevering me back
into consciousness of all I lack
and of that consciousness becoming proud.
There are keener griefs than God.
They come quietly, and in plain daylight,
leaving us with nothing, and the means to feel it.
My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language
to a fear that I can bear.
Make of my anguish
more than I can make. Lord, hear my prayer.
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