Christian Wiman, Hammer is the Prayer: Selected Poems (Farrar, Strauss and Giraux, $26.00).
Towards the beginning of his wonderful prose book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Christian Wiman comments, ‘I grew up in a flat little sandblasted town in West Texas: pumpjacks and pickup trucks, cotton like grounded clouds, a dying strip, a lively dump, and above it all a huge blue and boundless void I never really noticed until I left. […] To call the place predominantly Christian is like calling the Sahara predominantly sand.’ It is this kind of background, perhaps, which informs Wiman’s ability to empathise with the characters which populate many of his poems, such as the man in ‘Five Houses Down’ with his ‘ten demented chickens/ and the hell-eyed dog, the mailbox/ shaped like a huge green gun.’ This man utters ‘barklike earthquake curses/ [that] 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. Ain’t no call for that,/ Son, no call at all.’ Or the hermit who ‘seemed half born,/ half hewn, his skin mapped/ with damage, sweat slicking the juts and/ cliffs of flesh’ in ‘Hermitage’. These are not the usual characters which populate much contemporary poetry. And Wiman’s sense of the physical world of these characters is acute and deftly evoked.
This background seems to put Wiman’s writing at a slight tangent to other poets of his stature in contemporary American poetry; well, from the perspective of this side of the Atlantic perhaps. That background and his avowed Christianity. This Christianity, he comments, fuels, ‘a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.’ Thus, as I understand it, Wiman’s Christianity is essentially what is known as ‘apophatic’; a negative theology in which negative statements about God outweigh positive statements, that is, we can only say what God is not. Yet, Wiman suggests, the poetry has to emerge from a sense of personal engagement with God which reaches out to others and their engagement.
That need to tussle with an absconded God seems to arm Wiman’s writing with a muscular heft and his earliest poems also employ a formidable formalism which contains and corals that tussle. In the poem ‘My Stop is Grand’, Wiman depicts the daily commute on the El as a kind of metaphysical journey. The commuters ‘were all seeing/ one thing: / a lone unearned loveliness/ struck from an iron pain.’ But, at the end of the journey, the narrator (Wiman?) ‘walked/ teeming human streets/ filled with a shine/ that was most intimately me/ and not mine.’ This shine is, perhaps, a kind of hard-earned grace which not only ameliorates the urban world of work in which the commuters move. But it is a kind of grace which forces the observer to engage with the deeper realities of that world, not only physical but also human; out of pain grows the ‘shine’ which is the deeper, connected beauty of the world.
The final poem in this rich and necessary box depicts the narrator and his wife visiting the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, with ‘the two new lives / borne from us/ who loved best/ the eensy/ green/ almost/ unfish’. And it is in these surroundings that Wiman’s vision pulls in the range of his concerns; not simply the spiritual element, but deep comfort of family, and a deeper empathy with humankind as a whole, ‘Something in us/ touches/ suffering/ touching/ us/ like the constellations/ of kinetic quiet// that bound us beyond us’ ‘Something in us touches’.
Given the world we seem to have lurched into over the last six months, Wiman’s writing seems an exemplary repost to that narrowing future. His is an open-hearted, generous vision in which humanity is touched with a spiritual depth and a rich, warming tolerance.