Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and expression of this insufficiency… You spend years sealing up the gaps in your uncertainty, shoring fragments of fact and reason against your ruins, all the while praying that in rare moments some ghost of that good unknowingness – call it spirit, call it the unconscious, call it God – will slip back in to save you from your best efforts.
–Christian Wiman, “A Piece of Prose”
previous post, I feel a little ashamed to be covering a book that has already gotten its share of attention. And yet, there are times when a book feels so massively important, so necessary in terms of both poetic weight and cultural commentary, that it would be equally irresponsible to let the opportunity pass.
Previous reviews of Wiman’s Every Riven Thing seem to have been written with the large strokes of a fat-bristled brush. They make much of the poet’s job as Poetry Magazine editor, the diagnosis of his rare and dangerous cancer, and of his (early distance from, then later returning to) Christian identifications. All of this is a large part of the work, granted, but I have always been more interested in the craft of the work, not its origins.
The first thing I noticed about this book is how wide-reaching the subjects can be: Salvation and moral purpose play against American identity and the dangers of nationalism; disease and health are here too, but so are a searching for masculine identities and the long look back at a troubled family history. Almost unnervingly, Wiman keeps the collection from seeming too schizophrenic by giving each poem its due attention and its own identity. Eschewing a “style,” Wiman instead seems to be taking his direction from the gospel of paying close attention.
A poem like “The Mole,” for example, refuses to speak its subject, but rather reveals it almost unconsciously – the short lines and terse images, though bring forth the affect and the limited senses feared by the hospital-bound. The poem moves from the discovery of disease to the “diviners, machines / reading his billion / cells” to the nostalgia for “mountain / aster and ice / wine, Michigan / football, Canes / Venatici and / the Four North / Fracture Zone,” and so on, combining and coalescing images large as constellations and simple as pedestrian memories. In the poem, too, Wiman describes a machine of “glass and chrome / so infinites- / imally facet- / ed it seems / he lives inside / a diamond,” several lines that not only point to the poet’s ability to see the fine details of the sublime but also to his willingness to probe a terror to find them. Of course, there is also the intended effect of having the signified meaning literally broken away from its signifier, while at the same time, the breaking itself becomes its own sort of sign. Better said, these poems not only speak to brokenness, they demonstrate and display it.
It would not be unfair to say that each of Wiman’s poems represents a struggle at the interstices of darkness and light, and I do not think it is inaccurate to say that he does so with varying degrees of success. Regardless, the overall effect is masterful, and the technique, even when it feels familiar, is always thoughtfully enacted. This is true in two poems that could very well have come from Bishop’s Geography III – in “Five Houses Down,” the poet finds identity and masculinity in an older man’s scrap heap, while “Sitting Down to Breakfast” is a tender portrait of an old aunt who stands as a symbol for everything that is disappeared or disappearing from both life and memory. Both of these poems are working hard to mean something, but, like Bishop, we never seem to mind when they end up doing just that.
In a recent piece in Poetry’s 100 year anniversary, the poet V. Penelope Pelizzon muses whether she, or any poet writing today, will become the rubble of our era. We do have to wonder which of our poets will be disregarded in favor of the Few Big Names, and of course I want to say that a few of us will escape. I also want to say that Christian Wiman’s Every Riven Thing is a book that could define our age. It certainly has a voice and a presence that feels like it speaks for all human time. And yet, the honest answer is that even the greatest poems will not save us, even the greatest poems cannot define us. Then again, the poems in this collection still recognize that limitation, and yet they still seek some divinity or salvation.
Every Riven Thing may just be the book that represents this era’s cautious optimism. In Wiman’s words, “To believe is to believe you have been torn / from the abyss, yet stand unwaveringly on its rim.”
Weave Reviews Editor