Crackle and Prod

Christian Wiman, Survival is a Style: Poems

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 112pp, $24.00, ISBN 9780374272050

reviewed by GE Stevens

‘Most criticism is like most poetry; it simply leaves you indifferent’. True, but also not great to bear in mind when beginning a review of a poetry collection by the person who wrote it. It helps enormously that Christian Wiman does not write ‘most’ poetry. He is a poet and prose writer who occupies that mystical section of the Venn diagram where belief crosses over with unbelief, lack with fulfilment, stillness with noise, reverence with cynicism, prayer with first-class bitching. Wiman loves these knotty paradoxes; their complexity and mutability feeds his poems and keeps them open and desiring. But he is not, despite writing about and from a place of faith, your traditional ‘faith-poet’. In fact he takes a shredder to most preconceived ideas of religious poetry by both amplifying doubt and undercutting doctrinal conviction: ‘Trust no theory,’ he warns, ‘no religious history or creed, in which the author’s personal faith is not actively at risk.’

Wiman’s poetry is one of hopeful but unfulfilled enlightenment, as if he’s met Jesus the nice guy but hasn’t yet witnessed the main-act miracles. Yes, Wiman experiences faith (in this collection) but it is located primarily in what he doesn’t yet know — a fundamentally Lacanian reading of desire in that it emerges from a lack. Wiman’s faith is that hunger. There’s a beautiful passage in his prose collection, Ambition and Survival where Wiman calls on Ruskin to help him consolidate this idea of a lack or missing being at the heart of creativity:

The more beautiful the art, the more it is essentially the work of people who ‘feel themselves
wrong’ - who are striving for the fulfilment of the law, and the grasp of loveliness, which they
have not yet attained.

‘An original poem’, Wiman writes, ‘is a descent into and an expression of this insufficiency’, a thought mirrored in the opening poem of Survival: ‘I need a form for failure since it is what I have.’ Despite being one of the most elegant, precise and enjoyable prose writers out there, Wiman chooses poetry as his route through what he calls the ‘indecisive light’ because for him, both poetry and faith share this longing, this impulse to stretch for a lyrical sublime. Wiman’s four line poem, ‘My Bright Abyss’, though not in Survival is a Style, is a helpful place to start because it both enacts and describes the sense of perpetually coming-up short before his God:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing in nothing believe in this:

And there the poems ends, or ‘fails, rather’ (his words). It corners back on itself, unstitching and restitching declarations of faith, locating it in the ‘bright abyss’ which is neither reachable nor knowable. It’s a deceptively clever poem — it appears to be addressed to ‘My God’ but when the poem ends and, with the guidance of the semi-colon, loops back on itself, the ‘My God my bright abyss’ is both the addressee he desires to know and the response to unknowability: ‘once more’ he cannot know, ‘once more’ his God appears.

Christian Wiman was raised a small town west of Texas and he didn’t trust it — ‘partly because it was a simulacrum, partly because it wasn’t’, he writes. Crucially, he didn’t meet an unbeliever until he arrived in college in Virginia where he made it his intellectual mission to un-believe his baptist beginnings. My Bright Abyss charts his loss of his Texan-reared belief and his adaptation to a new kind of belief that aimed to expose and dismiss the infantile language surrounding faith — so for example words such as ‘eternity’, ‘omniscient’ are scrapped for a more psychological interpretation of the divine. You can see Wiman backing away from prefabricated labels of divinity throughout his work; it’s a way of swerving dogma and cliche and its a way of keeping himself and the text open. To date, Wiman has written three books of prose, one of translation and six of poetry, of which Survival is a Style is his sixth. His other CV high-point is that he served as editor at Poetry, arguably America’s most respected poetry magazine, between 2003 and 2013. He now teaches Literature and Religion at Yale and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Survival is a Style is in some ways a continuation from his previous collections because Wiman’s struggle hasn’t changed; we see him still grappling with the essential aloneness of being, the tightrope walk between a God-full and a God-less existence, the search for divinity in the every day. In an interview with the Chicago Review of Books, Wiman describes how the title of the collection refers to a link posited in a previous prose collection between psychological survival and poetic form: ‘I suppose that in some major way I do credit my survival as a person with my survival as a poet.’ What’s striking about this collection in particular, however, is its musicality. Wiman’s poetry has always had an incantatory persuasion; I’ve always felt ‘let in’ by their softly spoken persistence. But in Survival, perhaps because Wiman is now further away now from an illness that nearly claimed his life, the poetry has had time to unstick itself just that little bit more from autobiography so as to allow more breath and pause for sound. ‘Dusk’, in particular, speaks to this and is short enough to quote in full:

How slowly the mountain
takes it in,
like a diagnosis
of darkness.

The consolation
of a continuation
that has nothing to do
with you.

This is a prayer to our unassailable inconsequence. The lineation is open and kind; the mountain only ‘takes’ on the second line. The ‘diagnosis / of darkness’ pulls us back to his own struggle with cancer. But then the second stanza, not a full volta, but certainly an understanding that offsets the darkness — the essential comfort in remembering our detachment from the larger forces at work, how dusk will fall regardless, how diminishment before the great themes is a source of solace and peace. ‘Ah, Ego’ has a similar softly sung musicality as he addresses his ego, ‘my beetle / my cockroach’ which roams about intact despite the radiation to his body, ‘crawling out of the holocaust / of lost keys, bad screws, / and what have you’.

One of the reasons Survival is a Style actually survives the weight of these hulking themes of failure, doubt, insufficiency, illness and death is that Wiman is also very funny, especially when he hasn’t taken to someone. In ‘Doing lines at the Cocktail Party’ the describes a guest as ‘devastatingly irrelevant, like a mortuary fern.’ And then later ‘it was if some immense idiocy / had come to complete fruition in him.’ In ‘Summer River Rosie Dam’, the catty language joins itself up in a check list of of insults: Rosie is ‘Chunk-necked, long-bodied, lug-legged, smudge-coloured’. But the pithy, astoundingly cruel line that gives said-Rosie the final blow has to be: ‘Nothing culminates in her.’ Wiman notices people. He clocks their hypocrisy, their shifts up and out of themselves to impress, the absurdity of these performances. In the poem ‘All my Friends are Finding New Beliefs’ Wiman writes how ‘One man marries a woman twenty years younger / and twice in one brunch uses the word verdant’. Humour is not always at someone else expense though — in ‘Even Bees Know What Zero Is’ Wiman describes himself:

I’m done, I tell you. I’m due, I’m Oblivion’s datebook.
I’m a sunburned earthwork, a mongoose’s milk tooth,
A pleasure tariff, yesterday’s headcheese, spiritual gristle.
I’m the Apocalypse’s Popsicle. I’m a licked Christian.

When Wiman’s faith falters, or is lost momentarily, his poems explode with precise, melancholic images of him, just one man amongst many, as he grows old. Drinking whisky neat becomes ‘the tiny, divine stardust in the brain / by the gray, gray lake.’ Turning 50 becomes ‘I go out into the park. I have my death with me, / iron friend, and a few feather regrets.’ Morning becomes ‘Another morning of missed. / The habit of lack is hell / to break.’ It came as no surprise to discover one of his favourite poets is Patrick Kavanagh, or that he returns frequently to this excerpt from ‘The Great Hunger’:

No crash
No drama.
This was how life happened.
No mad horse galloping in the sky,
But the weak washy way of true tragedy —
A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.

You can see the shrug of ‘This was how life happened’ threaded through much of Wiman’s work. In ‘Whatever the Birds were’, Wiman writes ‘Whatever the birds were that flitted back and forth between them then, / they made a silver-seeming noise.’ There is an urge to push for further meaning when reading and writing about poetry — to infuse it with an interiority which was never there. But perhaps the birds in this poem are just that, nameless birds, making music. Or perhaps they are faith, some undefinable thing, always just too far away to see clearly. Either way, the birds are wonder, and their significance is not their name but how they are heard, how they are received.

Wiman loses his crackle and prod in poems where he detaches himself from a sense of failure or from the note-perfect observations of people around him. ‘Ten Distillations’, a poem seen many times over — often near the end of poetry collections when publishers push for a few more pages — is essentially a list of his own definitions of common words or phrases. To somnolent effect. Skeptic becomes: ‘His eyes were open but his heart was shut’ or The End of Prayer to ‘— that I might cry life / Like any bird belonging to its dawn.’ It’s hard not to hear the death-gong of Eat Pray Love within these declarations. It’s as if, in order to arrive at some untampered source of mystical truth, Wiman over distilled and evaporated away the poetry.

Most formal leaps in the collection, however, twin elegantly with their meaning. The centrepiece of the collection is an extended poem ‘The Parable of the Perfect Silence’, which deals with Wiman’s relationship with his father before he took his own life. In an interview, Wiman describes how he tried to write a prose poem but it didn’t work, ‘then one morning I woke up with the opening lines of the is poem, and the rest came pretty quickly, over the course of a month or so. It was the music of it, the style, that both opened me up and protected me.’ So style here is explicitly a form of survival, it is how Wiman is able to survive the telling of his father’s death just as finding the right style for a particular poem enables its conception, giving it a chance of survival on the page.

I am drawn to Wiman when he seeks to unbuckle faith from dogma and sit with the loose uncertainty of what’s left. I’m a little scared of him when he addresses his ‘Lord’ or ‘Him’ and speaks in ungraspable abstracts because, for me at least, the freight of these words threaten to swallow the poem up entirely. Fundamentally though, despite sometimes erring towards his West-Texas Baptist roots, Wiman isn’t comfortable asserting. He’s a poet, like many poets and writers before him, who uses writing to fill or heal whilst knowing he will never succeed: ‘In the end, we fall for what we fail’ (‘Flight’).

Survival is a Style asks a lot. It asks you to step forward into faith, then back, then bitch then pray, then throw it all in and start again. But it is an ultimately rewarding collection because this real-life jumpy inconclusiveness contains within its many edges a whole life. You trust its thinking — that it is saying something essential about its speaker. Wiman’s formal dexterity means he is able to carve out the right form for each utterance which makes for a dynamic, dense read. It also makes for a collection that feels hard won, in that it carries within all its shifting shapes an understanding of the absolute effort of faith — of finding it, naming it, doubting it, desiring it — and by extension the absolute effort every poem has to make in order to survive the complexity of its significance.

GE Stevens is a poet and critic who lives in London.