Review of Every Riven Thing, by Christian Wiman (Farrar, 2010) by D.S Martin
This review first appeared in Issue 21: Grief
In the Spring of 2010, I attended one of my favorite events—The Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. When I learned Christian Wiman—editor of Poetry
Magazine—would be speaking, I marked that session in my program. For me, it turned out to be one of the highlights of the conference. That morning he spoke of his journey, and his perspectives on art and faith. Even though I soon sought out Wiman titles in one of the bookstores, it was his upcoming poetry collection Every Riven Thing
that I was particularly looking forward to. In this, Christian Wiman’s third poetry collection, we see a poet who balances his playful love of language with his desire to have that language communicate something worth saying.
He plays with rhyme and partial rhyme in the opening poem, “Dust Devil”—“Mystical hysterical amalgam of earth and wind / and mind”—letting the sound propel us down the page.
He plays with the pairing of similar words, and with the associations of homonyms in our minds. In “Hermitage” he says of one character, he “wrought it all into a tenuous, tenacious form.” The word “wrought” here draws us back to a reference in the poem to working with iron; similarly, just after using a bell as a simile, he says, “He wrung / from time a time to vanish / back.” Wiman seeks to work out theological questions throughout the book
—and in the title poem, in particular, he examines the relationship between the Creator and his creation:
God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why.
And this is a world where we are torn, and where much of creation is torn, and as the Apostle Paul tells us, is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Rom. 8:22).
Christian Wiman strives with words to make them say what, in such a concise space, they might not be able to say. Sometimes he brings us with him with fascinating results, and sometimes he leaves us behind, scratching our heads.
In the case of a series of seven poems entitled “Not Altogether Gone,” it would have helped to have known up front that he is writing about the illness and death of his father; this only fully came to me from external sources. This is no sentimental portrait, but then again, even knowing the context, I don’t feel invited in enough to experience much of the man.
There are many poems, however, that sing in differing ways. In some, he’s a fine storyteller; in some, he’s skilled in making and breaking poetic structures; in some, he speaks with profound simplicity.
Sometimes the significance he seeks comes in the form of memories of his childhood in West Texas. Consider the stories in poems such as “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone” and “Five Houses Down.” The first is about a long-since-torn-down diner, in a long-abandoned town that only exists in the poet’s memory. The latter is about a neighbor whose yard was a scrapheap containing the “eyesore opulence / of his five partial cars” and a “wonder-cluttered porch.”
Christian Wiman’s first collection appeared in 1998. The Long Home
was a strong debut, with many of the techniques he employs in Every Riven Thing
already present. Much has happened in Wiman’s life since then. In 2003 he was appointed the editor of the influential, Chicago-based magazine Poetry
. After this coup, however, he hit a discouraging snag; his poetic stream ran dry. For more than a year he seemed unable to write any poetry at all.
According to Kevin Nance of Poets & Writers
, four significant things then happened in quick succession in Wiman’s life: 1) He fell in love with and married fellow-poet Danielle Chapman; 2) he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood cancer; 3) after years in the spiritual wilderness, he returned to God and the church; and 4) after three years of struggling, his ability to write poetry returned. All of these experiences contribute to Every Riven Thing.
Enduring cancer treatments and facing his own mortality come to mind when reading of a wind-blasted apple sapling in “After the Diagnosis” or when reading the prayer “This Mind of Dying”: “God let me give you now this mind of dying / fevering me back / into consciousness of all I lack.” The poet’s cancer unpredictably vacillates between active and dormant, and his prognosis is equally unknown. It is obvious from his poems that Wiman does not like God-talk—having been raised in a family awash with it—although he constantly speaks of God throughout the collection.
I think he fears to speak pat phrases that haven’t earned their place, or to be identified with those who speak this way. In the first part of “One Time” he says, “To believe is to believe you have been torn / from the abyss, yet stand wavering on its rim.” This is where Wiman finds his uncomfortable home.
His uneasiness with an oversimplified faith is evident by the self-debate that resurfaces from poem to poem: “Sometimes one has the sense / that to say the name / God is a great betrayal,” he tells us in “Gone for the Day, She is the Day.” And elsewhere he says, “I say God and mean more / than the bright abyss that opens in that word” (“One Time”)—and still elsewhere he proposes that his “tongue / be scrubbed . . . if I should utter / the dirty word / eternity” (“Lord of Having”). Similarly, like the kid in Sunday school who doesn’t want to be lumped in with the conformers, he frequently proves to us he hasn’t forgotten how to cuss: “. . . given all hell / to a god who given time / knew goddamn well / what to do with it.”
Even so, it’s often on the dark edge of doubt where faith’s beauty shines—often in the soil of real questions where answers bloom. I value Every Riven Thing when Wiman celebrates the good things of God, but I equally value the book when he has the guts to acknowledge the struggle.
As John Donne once prayed, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” so Wiman prays, “. . . shatter me God into my thousand sounds” (“Small Prayer in a Hard Wind”). He does not conclude with conclusions, but with room for each reader to continue to freely move through these poems again and again, for themselves.
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,
as if he had eyes,
—“Gone for the Day, She is the Day”
Read Issue 21: Grief
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