Christian Wiman – Survival is a method

Christian Wiman – Survival is a method

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Tiny, divine starburst

A functional check by

Survival is a style: poems
Christian Wiman

Hardcover: FSG Books, 2020
Buy Now: (Amazon) (Kindle)

Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

I first discussed Christian Wiman on these pages six years ago. I had spotted him recently. I started by saying: “Christian Wiman is an angry poet in his new collection. He is angry about his childhood in West Texas, about the incurable cancer he has, and about God. I like that about him – the scorching, sharp emotion – and once in the west. "

This is his first book with new books that are not translations since 2014. Six years later and I find the poet no longer relaxed. A meek person in the flesh – he gives graceful lectures and teaches literature and religion in Yale – when he picks up his pen or clicks on his keys, he resists. And in the prologue, he describes what is resisting in him as a kind of failure: "I need a room in which unbelief can breathe."

It breathes on these pages again and again in a way that should make every (unbelieving) person who reads them reflect with similar honesty. For example, consider the opening lines of the extraordinary poem that is part three of the collection:

I woke up today and didn't believe in anything.
A grief both intimate and unfeeling,
like the death of a good friend.
(from "The Parable of Complete Silence")

I don't think I'm wrong when Seamus Heaney clicks and sips alliterative lines in some of these poems, for example here:

Two trees, alders, fell dramatically into the gust
that abated so suddenly that it seemed …

And in another:

Suck misery like an egg
the sting and leak of ebullience
a character who is narrowed down in characteristics,

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Then consider the contrast of the title of this title, its assonance, and as you start speaking (I like to read poems aloud) do what the last word wants:

"To eat the terrible while starving your awe"

But my favorite poem in this new collection is "Spirits" about the father of a friend with dementia who is obsessed with sex while the poet examines "the relationship between chemistry and consciousness". The old man had lived his long life as a happy, loving Catholic. Is his mind now "divided like a cocktail / a part of mercy and two parts of loss, with a dash of anger?" Ultimately, his friend's father represents the poet himself, who like the old man harbors a certain emptiness. But together with the friend they clink glasses with the father, "… and feel in their own way the tiny, divine starburst in the brain / on the gray, gray lake."

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Jon M. Sweeney

Jon M. Sweeney is editor, publisher and writer. His books include the biography of James Martin, SJ: In the Company of Jesus, published in January, and Pilgrim Walks in Franciscan Italy, which will be published this fall.

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