Sunday, June 09, 2013

Wiman's Every Riven Thing by its Cover

(Reflections on Every Riven Thing, a collection of poems by Christian Wiman.  Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.  Cover design by Quemadura.)

English majors tell an urban legend about the doctoral candidate who explicated the word “soil” in Moby Dick for his thesis, and killed himself when a new edition corrected the typo to “sail.”  If the cover to Every Riven Thing turns out to have been designed without reference to poet or his text, well, I hope that I never find out. Meanwhile, I love the idea that the cover is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Wiman’s approach to both poetry and faith.

Not that Wiman needs translating: the first ten poems in the collection speak directly to the reader of Texas landscapes, neighbors, a dog, a diner, the subway.  They rhyme in unexpected places, play on double-meanings, build on repetition without being repetitive.  Like hors d’oeuvres at a banquet, each has flavor and texture worth savoring, and goes down easily.

Then come three poems in a row that were hard to swallow.  “This Mind of Dying” tripped me up with a grammatically ambiguous word in its opening lines:

God let me give you now this mind of dying
fevering me back
into consciousness of all I lack…(26)

How can “fever” be a transitive verb, and what subject “fevers” the persona back: God, or the surrender of “this mind of dying?”  A few lines later, the persona prays, “My God my grief forgive my grief….”  Is “God” the subject being asked asked to forgive grief?  Is grief an appositive, telling us that My God= my grief?  Or is “My God” an interjection?  OMG:  All three meanings make sense!  Certainly the poet strikes home with the idea, rhymed, that “language” can tame fear and transform “anguish.” 

Next in the collection come poems paired under the title “One Time” (27 ff), about two times:  dusk at “Canyon de Chelly, Arizona” and dawn at “2047 Grace Street.”  At the canyon, the persona sees ambiguous visions “under / dusk’s upflooding shadows” that may be footpaths or fissures, “ancient homes” or “random erosions.”  With absence of light pictured as a flood, the poet makes a positive of a negative. 

To play with opposite meanings is a key to his work, I think, reflected in two title pages and the cover:  all three give us the title in calligraphy, one white on black, one black on white, and one black on textured gray.  “To believe,” he writes in “Canyon” is to believe you have been torn/ from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim.” 

The next poem begins “But,” as if to refute the poem about the canyon.  He says the “world” is often “refuge” from “sharp particulate instants” of God’s intrusion into our world.  “I say God and mean more,” he writes, “than the bright abyss that opens in that word,” and “world” is “less than the abstract oblivion of atoms” we know from science.  Lying in bed, listening to the breathing of the woman he loves, he gives “praise to the light that is not / yet, the dawn in which one bird believes…” (30). 

Dusk v. dawn, “more” v. “less,”  not the abyss but its edge, not dawn but a song begun in darkness, and only so much “clarity” as allowed by “artifice of words” and “distance as …eyes impose”:  Ambiguity of grammar and opposites in imagery also seem, with Wiman, to be an analogy for how God is to be perceived.  I’m reminded of John Donne’s use of paradox to express his sense of God’s action in his life.

I look forward to reading more. 

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