Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman
Bob Dylan, when asked why he admired Woody Guthrie's music, said that it had the ability to teach a person how to live. I feel much the same way about Christian Wiman's newest collection, Every Riven Thing, released last November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. These are poems that, to quote Charles Wright, are born of "pain, and the rhythms of pain," which is to say that Wiman's writing embodies both grief and suffering, as well as a clear-eyed hope and a grounded joy.
In "After the Diagnosis," the poem which ultimately begins the collection, one is introduced to Wiman as an existential being, as well as a craftsman. The poem begins:
when the apple sapling was blown
almost out of the ground.
No telling how,
with all the other trees around,
it alone was struck.
As a microcosm, these few lines display Wiman's propensity toward subjects of depth and arc, as well as his dedication to simplicity and directness. One can also sense the pressure that Wiman imposes upon his language, the form. Though just as in lived reality, this form is not fixed-- it adapts to the subject, just as the subject adapts to the form. This discerning restraint is a fixture in Wiman's poetics. The poem continues:
It must have been luck,
he thought for years, so close
to the house it grew.
It must have been night.
Here, with a line as simple as, "It must have been luck," or "It must have been night," Wiman invites the reader into a reality including, but also transcending, the afflicted tree. The title of the poem, coupled with public knowledge that Wiman suffers from a rare blood cancer, is to assume that the author sees something of himself in the tree, something of the tree's reality in his own. The poem concludes:
A day's changes mean all to him
and all day's come down
to one clear pane
through which he sees
among all the other trees
this leaning, clenched, unyielding one
that seems cast
in the form of a blast
that would have killed it,
as if something at the heart of things,
and with the heart of things,
had willed it.
These final lines resonate with an authority that is rare in contemporary poetry (whether this is the fault of postmodern misgivings, or simply a matter of personal taste, I cannot distinguish). However, it is worth considering that the genesis-point of poetry (and art in general) is the assumption that, no matter how enigmatic, there are fixed points of which reality is composed. Wiman uses his poetry to explore such leanings, while remaining clear of those dualisms which can give way to polemics and apologetics. Wiman makes it clear that any bit of wisdom he may offer is hard-won and born of struggle. In "Grace Street" we read:
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.
Again, one senses that Wiman's authority springs not from a belief system designed to bring solace or comfort, but from an inclusive worldview lived out within the tensions between despair and hope, love and fear, visible and invisible. These tensions, specifically those between the visible and the invisible, are most palpable in the title poem of the collection, which ends:
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,
God goes belonging to every riven thing he's made.
The two lines, "A part of what man knows, / apart from what man knows," can be read as a thesis statement for the whole collection--a dualism that Wiman leaves fully intact throughout, acknowledging that any truth, if one is honest, can only be experienced and understood opaquely.
However, one must be careful not to read Every Riven Thing as a book of mere existential agony and ecstasy, but rather a book in which the everyday plays a central role. In the poem "Five Houses Down," Wiman writes about his neighbor's "ten demented chickens," "the mailbox / shaped like a huge green gun," "the wonder cluttered porch / with its oil spill plumage," and "the dark / clockwork of disassembled engines." For all of Wiman's transcendent longing, it is clear that he fully embraces--and even revels in--materiality. These empirical leanings are compounded by the fact that nearly every poem in the collection engages the natural world in some significant way, such as "For D.," in which Wiman writes:
Groans going all the way up a young tree
half-cracked and caught in the crook of another
pause. All around the hill ringed, heavened pond
leaves shush themselves like an audience.
The poem ends with the stunning image:
A clutch of mayflies banqueting on oblivion
writhes above the water like visible light.
The final poem in Every Riven Thing, "Gone for the Day, She is the Day," is perhaps the strongest and most transparent piece in the collection. It is composed of four fragments which at first seem to gesture only distantly at one another, but then, when read in light of the whole book, become a set of north stars for the reader. The first fragment begins simply:
Dawn as a dog's yawn, space
in bed where a body should be..."
and then later:
nibbling, nibbling at Nothingness...
In the second fragment, Wiman addresses the insufficiency of language, especially when engaging notions of, and longings for, transcendence:
Sometimes one has the sense
that to say the name
God is a great betrayal,
but whether one is betraying
God, language, or one's self
is harder to say.
The third fragment situates the reader into a more concrete space in which Wiman attempts to ground his musings on being confined to language and longing to inhabit reality more fully:
Gone for the day, she is the day
razoring in with the Serbian roofers,
and ten o'clock tapped exactly
by the one bad wheel of the tortilla cart,
and the newborn's noonday anguish
The collection ends with the fourth fragment, a mix of prayer and wisdom--a benediction:
To love is to feel your death
given to you like a sentence,
to meet the judge's eyes
as if there were a judge,
and if he had eyes,
The cover of Every Riven Thing gives the impression of a piece of vellum placed over a photo of mist with the most subtle hintings of a face below. One can hardly even notice the face at first. But then, slowly, it emerges. Frank Wilson, quoting Whitman, is right to say of Every Riven Thing: "Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man." Wiman is a true guide, not only through grief and suffering, but the whole of human experience-- a poet who wades out just far enough to have a greater perspective, but not so far as to lose sight of land.