Every Riven Thing
By Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Like many contemporary poets, Christian Wiman is interested in describing human experience beyond what can be contained by language. However, instead of undermining language to expose its limitations, the poems in his new book, Every Riven Thing, embrace the ability of words to convey meaning and, in doing so, to bring us closer to the uncertain, utterly mysterious experience of being alive.
Wiman wants to locate the unknown and the unknowable. In “Late Fragment,” he describes the mystery found in his experience of silence as a child:
scrabbled hole and the black beyond;
as if water wanted out of itself;
tip of the sycamore’s weird bare reach:
some latency in things leading not so much to speech
as to a halting, haunted art
wherein to master was to miss—
These poems reveal a restless, alert, and agitated mind dealing with the challenges of being alive. Wiman is especially challenged by the discovery of having a terrible, incurable disease (a rare blood cancer), revealed in the second poem, “Diagnosis.” This hurtles his poetry into urgent exploration. Not only does the work reach for the ineffable experience of being human, but that experience is tangled with the intense anxiety and grief of having a terminal disease.
Wiman’s writing is unflinching and stunningly open. Here is one passage describing a day of treatment:
Philosophy of treatment regimens, scripture of obituaries:
heretic, lunatic, I touch my tumor like a charm.
Prevarications, extenuations, tomorrow’s tease of being:
we are what we are only in our last bastions.
And past that?
Now, near me, not me, a girl, shameless, veinless, screams.
But Wiman has much greater ambitions than merely describing his illness. He is interested in nothing less than locating an innate source of joy and the presence of God.
Despite his pain and grief, Wiman finds himself stumbling upon a stubborn, inexplicable joy. He is frequently surprised to find that even in excruciatingly difficult moments “up crawls / my cockroach of hope” (“Darkcharms”). It rises out of what seems to be the basic stuff of being alive, “as if joy / were an animal . . . blind, / scabbing, earth- / covered creature” (“The Mole”), or “a ridiculous red-jacketed / poodle . . . twisting biting / snowflakes like miracle toys” (“Jouissance”).
And just as mysterious and undeniable is the presence of God in the world. Wiman doesn’t see God as an intervening presence, at least not on the physical level; God won’t alter a diagnosis of cancer or change events that lead to hardship and sorrow. For Wiman, God provides the opportunity to better engage the world. He goes so far to say that without God we lose the means to take on the difficult task of facing the world:
But the world is more often refuge
than evidence, comfort and covert
for the flinching will, rather than the sharp
particulate instants through which God’s being burns
into ours. . .
. . . Praise to the pain
scalding us toward each other
Throughout the book Wiman makes his case that faith in God allows for the possibility of a greater access to the world.
My God . . .
Make of my anguish
more than I can make.
(“This Mind of Dying”)
For Wiman, God’s presence is manifest at a level below consciousness. In the harsh but beautiful poem “Hammer Is the Prayer,” an unnamed speaker makes the bitter pronouncement “To hell with remembrance, to hell with heaven / hammer is the prayer of the poor and the dying.” To this Wiman responds:
And as wind in some lordless random comes to rest
and all the disquieted dust within,
peace comes to the hinterlands of our minds,
too remote to know, but peace nonetheless.
Christian Wiman is fiercely dedicated to describing experiences for which there are no words—an ambition shared with many poets today. But few contemporary poets invite us to consider new ways of looking at those experiences as openly, intensely, and originally as he does.