Once in the West
By Christian Wiman
128 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00.
There are no cowboys or honky tonk singers in Christian Wiman’s new collection of poems, Once in the West. Instead, in a harrowing reflection on faith, death, and the way life hastens into the western horizon, our long-gone noons behind us, Wiman comes to town with a six-shooter revolver of his own devotional studies, along with cameos from Dante and Goethe, Whitman and Eliot, but with a voice uniquely his own. His book evinces the shared nature of a personal and private theology.
A scholar himself at the Yale Divinity School, he sometimes demonstrates the ambiguous diction of a Theologion—“anxiety,” “despair,” “sinning,” “pretense of prayer.” However, in the same poem where you find “homiletic” or “doxology” you can discover the hair-pulling honesty of lines like this:
I tell you it’s a bitch existence some Sundays
and it’s no good pretending you don’t have to pretend,
don’t have to hitch up those gluefutured nags Hope and Hell
and whip the sorry chariot of yourself
toward whatever hell your heaven is on days like these.
Personally, I kind of like it when devotional poets use naughty words. One thing to keep in mind with verse dealing with the topic of devotion is, and WH Auden concerned himself with this same problem, is, how does a poet talk about sin without bragging? What we find in Wiman is different than the vainglory we sometimes find in poetry about religion. A poetic that can tell about the pleasures of life amid the struggles and humiliations of the body and mind using all the electricity a modern language can employ:
an airplane splits and sutures the blue as it roars for elsewhere.
After soiling himself in the hospital during a chemotherapy session, he notices of his nurse,
a bit of icelace undergarment like the very last trace
of a glacier.
Love’s last urgency is earth
and grief is all gravity
and the long fall always
back to earliest hours
that exist nowhere
but in one’s brain.
The urgency of Wiman’s book to live with Christianity and the modern world unsettles our prepared quibbles when we start to get a whiff of religious proselytizing. This is a book that has learned the human body from skin to spirit–sun up to sun down.
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