Rendered moments: Christian Wiman's haunting "Every Riven Thing"
Joseph Campbell once said that what we really seek is not the meaning of life but the feeling of being alive, the experience of the living moment. In page after page...Wiman renders such moments.
The Sewanee Review in an review of Christian Wiman's "Every Riven Thing."
Praise for "Every Riven Thing" was downright rampant—The New York Times Book Review wrote of Wiman's "blazing high style" and The Christian Science Monitor called the collection "searingly honest and beautifully crafted, it establishes Wiman in his most important public role: a gifted poet whose work cannot be ignored"—but, for me, the quote from The Sewanee Review seems uniquely able to speak to the heart-wrenching magic behind Wiman's verse.
When writing the poems that would eventually make up "Every Riven Thing," Wiman was grappling with a diagnosis of a rare form of cancer and wooing the woman who would become his wife. And what makes one feel more alive than facing his or her own mortality or falling in love? The result is a body of thought-provoking work brimming with energy and clear-eyed sentiment. As Brian Doyle wrote in The Christian Century, “This is haunting stuff—this is language turned and tuned to a pitch where it is both quiet scream and humble song."
One of my favorites is "Five Houses Down," reproduced below, where the brightness and gravity of a childhood memory is rendered in forceful fullness. Do me—and yourself—a favor and read it out loud, will you?
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, the wonder-cluttered porch
with its oilspill plumage, tools
cauled in oil, the dark
clockwork of disassembled engines
christened Sweet Baby and benedicted Old Bitch;
and down the steps into the yard the explosion
of mismatched parts and black scraps
amid which, like a bad sapper cloaked
in luck, he would look up stunned,
patting the gut that slopped out of his undershirt
and saying, Son,
you lookin’ to make some scratch?
All afternoon we’d pile the flatbed high
with stacks of Exxon floormats
mysteriously stencilled with his name,
rain-rotted sheetrock or miles
of misfitted pipes, coil after coil
of rusted fencewire that stained for days
every crease of me, rollicking it all
to the dump where, while he called
every ragman and ravened junkdog by name,
he catpicked the avalanche of trash
and fished some always fixable thing
up from the depths. Something
about his endless aimless work
was not work, my father said.
Somehow his barklike earthquake curses
were not curses, for he could goddam
a slipped wrench and shitfuck a stuck latch,
but one bad word from me
made his whole being
twang like a nail mis-struck. Aint no call for that,
son, no call at all. Slipknot, whatknot, knot
from which no man escapes—
prestoed back to plain old rope;
whipsnake, blacksnake, deep in the wormdirt
worms like the clutch of mud:
I wanted to live forever
five houses down
in the womanless rooms a woman
sometimes seemed to move through, leaving him
twisting a hand-stitched dishtowel
or idly wiping the volcanic dust.
It seemed like heaven to me:
beans and weenies from paper plates,
black-fingered tinkerings on the back stoop
as the sun set, on an upturned fruitcrate
a little jamjar of rye like ancient light,
from which, once, I took a single, secret sip,
my eyes tearing and my throat on fire.