Once in the West by Christian Wiman

Jacqueline Kolosov

 
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014).

 
Once in the West, Christian Wiman’s fourth collection of poems,
enacts a spiritual quest that is simultaneously a kerosene-and-blood-
and-shit-and-morphine-fueled struggle to make something
out of pain that is both physical and spiritual and always,
in these demanding, intensely musical lyrics, embodied. the
struggle with pain resounds throughout, less encapsulated
(despite the tight writing) than loosed, as here at the last in the
varying refrains from “Something in us suffering touches” which
ends the collection:

 

Something in us suffering, touches,

teaches first to find...

 

Something in us, suffering, touches,

torches,

so we may saunter

seemingly

through an altogether other...

 

Something in us touches

suffering

touching

us

 

like the constellations

of kinetic quiet

 

that bound us beyond us...

 
These elliptical variations continually disrupt the minimalist narrative
to speak or shout back to the themes of illness, despair,
grief, doubt, death—and the piercing need for some redemption—
with which Once in the West wrestles, like Jacob with the
angel, except Wiman’s speaker(s) more closely resemble the man
whose “smack-freaked friends lashed him//to the back of a
Brahman bull that bucked and shook/until like great bleeding
wings the man’s collarbones//exploded out of his skin” (“We
Lived”).

Given Wiman’s pitch and the way his predilection for myriad
sounds binds him—and us—to a Dantean agonia, it is well-nigh
impossible not to stay present while reading him: “Painlady
lay upon my tongue the morphine moon,/let your opiate
hope//bloom once more in my brain/that I might be blessedly
less alive—//not howling homeward like that hound/(I hear him
now).” At the same time, Wiman recollects predecessors as formidable
as Herbert, Blake, Frost, Jarrell, and of course Hopkins,
whose love of language and God has no rival.

Like Hopkins, Wiman is a poet in love with assonance, alliteration,
enjambment, and rhyme in its endless variations. He also
possesses a passion for crafting compound words, among the
most stunning “mindlice,” “everair,” “razormusic,” and the
much-needed whimsy of “tatterdemalion dandelion.”

Jacqueline Kolosov has new poetry and prose in Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, and Stand. Her third poetry collection is Memory of Blue (Salmon, 2014), and she has two YA novels forthcoming this year.