The Farrar, Straus and Giroux Poetry Blog

April 26, 2012

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.

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