Christian Wiman Has Nothing to Prove, And Yet He Does

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Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

Christian Wiman has nothing to prove. His output in recent years sparkles: Joy: 100 Poems, an anthology he edited with a title so out of step with the times that it circled back around to surprise us that we could feel such a thing as joy just now. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art, a memoir that touched on death, life, faith, doubt, and art in a scant 128 pages but with a depth that made you want to savor every page. And I’m not even reaching back to My Bright Abyss, his 2014 poetry collection.

Yet here he is again, with Survival Is a Style, a new collection of poems that you’d swear is just showing off if you didn’t know it was coming from the midst of a swift-moving current that flows reliably through and around Wiman. There is the formal excellence. The gratuitous pops and swerves of sounds. The close observations and philosophical hints. The autobiography cut through memory and longing.

You feel the ambition, right? Wiman wants to explore every crevice of his craft. You see it plainly in a poem like “I Don’t Want to Be a Spice Store”:

I want to be the one store that’s open all night

and has nothing but necessities.

Something to get a fire going 

and something to put one out…

I want to hum just a little with my own emptiness 

at 4 a.m. To have little bells above my door.

To have a door.

Elsewhere, Wiman is content to give us little truths disguised as asides. As when he tells us about a cousin “whose political opinions/vile up out of him on the internet/ in the most imaginative ways.” Or that guy at the cocktail party: “Even his praise was tainted with appraisal./ That smile invited and indicted you:/ the whole of him a hole in him.”

At other times he’s more straightforward, but no less playful. In “Ten Distillations” he takes on Christian vocabulary and produces delightful definitions. Three of my favorites:

Skeptic

His eyes were open but his heart was shut.

At the edge of every wonder he said But

Natural Theology

Dawn, light dew on the grass, the air cool, clear.

Nothing more. Nothing mere.

The End of Prayer

—that I might cry life 

like any bird belonging to its dawn.

And then, there is the extended poem that constitutes the collection’s third part, “The Parable of Perfect Silence,” a meditation on the death of his father. You see his struggle to come to terms with what his father meant and means to him. And the struggle is about God, as well.

When I began writing these lines 

it was not, to be sure, inspiration but desperation, 

to be alive, to believe again in the love of God. 

The love of God is not a thing one comprehends 

but that by which—and only by which—one is 

comprehended.

“Flashes and fragments, flashes and fragments” are all that he has to recreate his father and his faith. He concludes with a striking image from the motel room his family was sharing once when he was a boy. His father wakes and flicks his lighter in the dark to try and find his clothes and a young Christian moves toward him.

rising carefully out of my pallet on the floor 

and feeling my way beyond the bodies of my brother and sister 

toward the shade that is my father 

to stand in this implausible light where to whisper would be too much, 

and anyway what’s next is known, Dad, and near, 

the nowhere diner, hot chocolate and the funny pages, 

and the consolation that comes when there is nothing to console.

Yes, Wiman has nothing to prove and mostly he only intimates at what he’s after. Yet you can’t help feel that he has performed some miraculous feat of revelation. You know, at the end and throughout, as he says in “God Lord the Light,”

There is an under, always, 

through which things still move, breathe,

and have their being, 

quick coals and crimsons 

no one need see 

to see.

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