As Reviewed By: Sunil Iyengar
The Long Home by Christian Wiman. Story Line Press, 1998.
Hard Night by Christian Wiman. Copper Canyon Press, 2005.
When the mantle of Poetry editor descended on the 37-year-old Christian Wiman in 2003, many a poet-critic burned with envy. Never had the garb seemed so attractive: with a share of Ruth Lilly’s $200 million bequest, the magazine would have a blank check to spend on gilding its image. For more than two decades, the former scrapbook of twentieth-century Modernism had languished between blue-chip venerability and proxy ownership by MFA programs. Now came the chance not only for bold experimentation, but to launch the vocal readership envisioned in 1912, when a sentence from Whitman had supplied a motto for Harriet Monroe’s start-up venture: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.”[private]
At this point in their reveries, the envious could breathe easier. While the glory of discovering a new talent or championing neglected masters could not fail to appeal, there were hidden costs to be reviewed. There was the politics of the situation-the need to adopt an impersonal stance toward one’s peers and fellow-poets, at least where their work is concerned. Then, and even if the editor were a considerable poet, tact required that he or she suppress self-publication in the very journal undergoing apotheosis.
Fortunately, Wiman’s unique strengths as a poet minimize the costs of the latter sacrifice. It is doubtful, in any case, that the best of his poems ever could have appeared in Poetry; they are simply too long. To call them mid-sized would be better: without grasping at the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too phenomenon of the verse novel, Wiman’s creations prompt us to reject the theory proposed by Poe, endorsed by Mallarmé, and validated unwittingly by the Modernists-the notion that poetry should consist of a series of lyrical moments without recourse to sustained narrative. This view still prevails in the popular sensibility and in editorial offices of glossy magazines where poetry occupies the same amount of space as a political cartoon. Even a Poetry reader would be inclined to agree with this proposition, when half the journal’s contents are regularly given to prose.
Before arguing for the merits of Wiman’s longer work, let me concede a dearth of exhibits. As of this writing, Wiman has published only two books, The Long Home(1998 winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize) and Hard Night (2005), and the ratio of successful long poems to short poems may yet flip with another volume. From this vantage, however, a quartet of poems claim the reader’s attention: the title poem of Wiman’s first book; “Sweet Nothing”; “Ice Storm”; and the tour de force (if the term is not extravagant for such an invisibly working poet) “Being Serious,” the sequence that ends his second book.
Of the four, “The Long Home” is the most deliberately narrative, evoking a Steinbeck setting redolent of sepia prints and the Dust Bowl. In 40 pages of blank verse, Wiman relates a family yarn through the eyes of his grandmother, who as a girl accompanied relatives from the Carolinas to Champion, Texas-there to suffer drought, isolation, farm labor and at least two family tragedies, and to marvel constantly as life slips by. The second most cohesive narrative is “Ice Storm” (Hard Night), in some ways the better poem. Wiman’s method here is more oblique: this character sketch of a retired academic and his wife, and the time-locked interstice of the poem’s events-all in one afternoon, with the couple separated by a bedroom door-acquire a subtly original flavor seasoned by cunning rhymes and irregular line lengths.
By the end of the poem, the elderly James experiences “stiffness in one side” and “a fine pain / needling into his chest and down one shoulder.” The scene is set for death by heart attack, yet in the final stanza our narrator clouds the lens:
Let the ache
that feels like acid rising in his chest
as he lies down on his bed to rest
from what it seems he’s just begun
be only that.
Let it be done,
if not for good then for now,
if for good then with grace somehow . . .
Does James die or not? The next few lines can presage an afternoon nap just as easily as a fatal arrhythmia, but the question becomes irrelevant, since the reader is willing to accept the 15-page poem as a crystalline set-piece to amplify Wiman’s twin themes, the passage of time and our resolute separateness.
The ambiguity that shrouds the ending of “Ice Storm” is the prime mover in “Sweet Nothing,” the opening poem of Hard Night and, at eight pages, the shortest member of the quartet under consideration. The title fuses two qualities found in Wiman’s work as a whole: the “sweet” ache of poignant memories, real or imagined, and the “nothing” that reveals a drift toward self-abnegation. (Even the book’s title,Hard Night, and the cover art reproduced from Nathan Oliveira, bespeak the latter trait.) There is also, less characteristically, a lightness of touch in these fantasies of an apartment-dweller who lies awake listening to his upstairs neighbor-an English art-restorer named Rebecca-as she showers, dresses, and departs for work. Rhyme in this poem, composed in trimeter and tetrameter, is less of a force than in “Ice Storm,” but even without this device, he propels the narrative.
O Rebecca, wry Rebecca,
with your furtive interiority
and your English teeth,
your county Suffolk candor
and vaguely tubercular beauty,
you are not alone . . . .
As the chute opens
above you once more,
Rebecca, sucking him up
into the ceiling, laugh,
because what else can you do
when walls dissolve,
a floor widens to horizon,
and all the guards,
quacking like ducks,
take out their feather dusters
and tidy up the sky?
Parts of the poem, like the passage quoted, recall Randall Jarrell’s “A Girl in a Library,” with its vicarious, over-the-top wooing of a sealed mind. Wiman’s poem is similarly dense in allusions to high culture and foreign phrases, but the most opaque factor is his effortless shuttling between daydreams and reality. In “Sweet Nothing,” he could not have chosen better metaphors to fuel this transport: art restoration and repatriation.
The thirst for restoration, as if to a primal dark, haunts many of the shorter poems. If “Sweet Nothing” evokes “A Girl in the Library,” then Wiman’s work as a whole covers much of the same terrain as Jarrell’s final book, The Lost World. Poems like “Scenes from a Childhood,” “Why He Doesn’t Keep a Journal,” and “Sweet Dreams” record, with varying levels of success, an irreparable rift with the past. Lyrics such as “Elsewhere” define Wiman’s poetics better than any reviewer could.
is momentary, a way
of seeing, a sweet lingering
in a cloud before it drifts
beyond the form he’s found
for it, a brief
impalpable life breathed
into clothes on a line.
When a contemporary poet decides to forego lucid particulars for generalizations such as these, an act of minor bravery is occurring. Yet the rhetorical feat would be worthless if unsupported by rhythmic pacing. Perhaps it is rhythm, and rhythm alone, that rescues the abstractions in Wiman’s shorter poems. To illustrate what I mean, here is “Afterwards,” a poem from the first book. In this poem-which bears an epigraph from Ovid-Wiman personifies a lake.
There is nothing left for anyone to hold.
The days are long and mild, and parts
of herself are drifting imperceptibly
into them. She almost remembers rain,
each drop colder than she is, clearer.
Her face becomes the face of everyone
who looks into her, her longings their own.
When she feels the warm bodies of children
swimming inside of her, or lovers
under the shadows on her skin,
she wants to carry them all down
into her deepest reaches. They leave
silvered with tears. On clear nights she wears
the moon like a soft jewel and dreams
of a world as still and silent as she is.
The least touch leaves her whole body trembling.
“Afterwards” is Wiman’s most nearly flawless lyric: yet note how many abstractions might have dragged the poem down, like the swimmers themselves, had not a subtle ear lent credibility to the conceit. The first line lays down a floor plan of iambic pentameter alternating with tetrameter (though Wiman is never fussy with syllabic count), and his artful deployment of caesurae and accented syllables are enough for us to accept “the moon like a soft jewel” and “silvered with tears.”
Contrast the effect of “Afterwards” to a poem from the second book, “The Funeral.” This irregularly rhymed poem in iambic pentameter allows Wiman more room for sharp observation and reflection. Yet a couple of rhythmic missteps are all it takes to ruin the effect. After a smooth meditative unfolding, Wiman throws us an awkward line:
And lovely, too, the singing when it starts,
out-of-time, hopelessly out-of-tune,
yet strong, encompassing, as if it came from hearts
that knew as well as loss what loss would be soon-
The reader wants to pronounce the last line as strict iambic pentameter, but the ear’s expectations are baffled. The culprit is the ambiguous “would be soon,” where the stress must fall on “be” for the line to fit rhythmically into the context of the passage. But to construe the line in that manner is forced and unnatural. The alternative gloss-to treat “would be” as a pyrrhic substitution-breaks the line’s momentum.
A similar kind of thing occurs in the very last line of the poem: “and though it’s way too late to make it home,” where “way” carries the unnerving connotation of surfer dialect, especially since the word bears one of the line’s five stresses. (The dull repetition of long “a” sounds is no help, either.) Until that line, each stress had been deeply felt, contributing to the poem’s rich solemnity.
The chance to discuss such niceties of phrasing is a rare pleasure, and is itself a species of praise. But my point here is that Wiman’s prosodic skill invites greater scrutiny in the shorter poems than in the longer ones, where rhythm takes its place alongside other distractions-narrative, character, and sustained rhyme scheme-which offset his tendency to generalize.
In the introduction to Morri Creech’s Field Knowledge (2006), J.D. McClatchy quotes Robert Frost as saying that in a book of 25 poems, the book itself is the twenty-sixth. For too many poets, this rule is as quaint as a concept album in the era of iPods. Yet it does seem to fit Wiman’s technique: favorite words recur throughout the poems, lending the whole an impression of unity. Those words include: darkness,dream, light, days, nothing, blunt, long, distance, clouds, hard, ground, long, shadow,silence, child, earth, night, fire, field, and cold. Confronting these elemental nouns and adjectives, the reader is tempted to respond with three more words: stark,austere and, above all, serious.
“Being Serious” is a 37-page suite of 22 poems, plus an epilogue. The series should count as the pinnacle of Wiman’s achievement in both books. The ragged line endings and seamless rhyming pattern from “Ice Storm” are invoked to give the sequence a directness of presentation, of character and story, that is no less compelling because we are dealing with an abstraction. “Serious” is the epithet for the protagonist who rattles through these pages like a familiar compound ghost. This reference to Eliot can be pushed too far: “Serious” might be able to pass for one of “The Hollow Men,” but his real peers are Robinson’s Miniver Cheevy, Berryman’s Henry, Kees’ Robinson, Stevie Smith’s drowning figure, Dylan’s Mr. Jones, and the Beatles’ Nowhere Man. The nameless, faceless character of Serious allows Wiman to place him in a variety of settings congruent with late twentieth-century life as a humorless agnostic, intelligent but ineffectual, who knows his hypocrisies only too well:
Serious doesn’t speak French.
This embarrasses Serious,
Because insofar as he lives anywhere,
Serious lives in Paris.
He feels the city stare,
Feels himself sweat, and shake, as he tries to wrench
The little that he’s gleaned
Into the lot that he desires;
Feels shopkeepers look at him as if he were a liar,
Waiters as if he were unclean;
And if he wakes saying fromage,
Or in some shop feels
Right on the verge of translating please,
Serious knows it’s a dream,
And knows from childhood what to do.
Point and scream
Until the damn fools give you cheese.
As a child, Serious is fatally precocious. From the moment of his birth, we fear he will end up like Victor in Auden’s eponymous ballad:
They tapped Victor on the shoulder,
They took him away in a van;
He sat as quiet as a lump of moss
Saying, ‘I am the Son of Man.’
Victor sat in a corner
Making a woman of clay:
Saying; ‘I am Alpha and Omega, I shall come
To judge the earth some day.’
Fortunately for Serious, and truer to his character, his problems are more mundane: “Serious gets online. / There’s something he needs to find, / Something simple he can’t quite bring to mind, / And which, apparently, his books don’t contain.” In another poem, “Serious pays a bill, / Figures nervously when the check will clear,” and in still another, “Serious experiences loss. / Just like that. / Flat. / Serious experiences loss.” The reward of staying with Serious is that despite his roots in caricature, Wiman manages to transcend them. (“Serious isn’t Stupid, / Though they go to the same gym,” begins one poem.) Indeed, by the end of the series, we may regard Serious’ predicament in the same light as Turgenev’s “superfluous men.”
Although Wiman’s longer poems are better suited to his abstract diction, two short poems frame his concerns admirably. In these lyrics, the poet is inseparable from the dark unknown of which he speaks. For example, “Hard Night” aspires to Larkin’s burden of self-realization in “Going,” the poem that opened the British poet’s original (1988) Collected Poems. Larkin asks:
Where is the tree gone, that locked
Earth to the sky? What is under my hands,
That I cannot feel?
What loads my hands down?
For his part, Wiman inquires:
What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?
What place or further peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?
The other lyric is “Done,” worth quoting fully because besides being one of Wiman’s most successful short poems, it prefigures the character of Serious.
Men living in the dark regard
of their own faces
in the night’s black panes
pause finally as if for air,
and standing there
at desks or kitchen drains
are so ghosted by those spaces
they look into and are
that something in them goes hard.
They are their choices.
They are what remains.
And they stare and stare
until a man who had their eyes, their hair,
who answered to their names
and spoke with their voices,
falls from them like a star.
Comparisons, I find, are again inevitable. Re-read Wiman’s first stanza and hearken back to MacNeice’s “Conversation”.
Ordinary people are peculiar too:
Watch the vagrant in their eyes
Who sneaks away while they are talking with you
Into some black wood behind the skull,
Following un-, or other, realities,
Fishing for shadows in a pool.
But sometimes the vagrant comes the other way
Out of their eyes and into yours
Having mistaken you perhaps for yesterday
Or for tomorrow night, a wood in which
He may pick up among the pine-needles and burrs
The lost purse, the dropped stitch.
Vagrancy however is forbidden; ordinary men
Soon come back to normal, look you straight
In the eyes as if to say ‘It will not happen again’,
Put up a barrage of common sense to baulk
Intimacy but by mistake interpolate
Swear-words like roses in their talk.
Wiman’s quietly brooding poems, like MacNeice’s “ordinary men,” hint at depths when we least expect them. Like the last 37 pages of Hard Night, they work best when appearing not to take themselves too seriously.[/private]