Once in the West by Christian Wiman

Jacqueline Kolosov
| Reviews


In a December 2012 interview with Christianity Today,
Wiman discusses the diagnosis he received of a rare, incurable
form of blood cancer; his fall into despair which he calls “the
abyss,” and his ultimate return to God and the faith of his youth
from which he’d been estranged since college: “the theologian
Jürgen Moltmann once wrote that all theology, especially a theology
of hope,” Wiman says in the interview, “had to be conducted
‘in earshot of the dying Christ.’ Abundance and destitution are
both aspects of God—or, more accurately, aspects of our experience
of God.”

The poems in Once in the West are spoken—whether shouted
or whispered—within the earshot of the dying—or within
earshot of dying. And God is invoked throughout, though
Wiman’s God is not the God of Hopkins. Rather, Wiman’s is
“the long intolerable called God” (“We Lived”), “typically cryptic”
(“Witness”), and a force with whom the speaker must reckon,
a force that can feel like an absence:


I said I will not bow down again

to the numinous ruins.

I said I will not violate my silence with prayer.

I said Lord, Lord

in the speechless way of things

that bear years, and hard weather, and witness.



Wiman was born and raised on the high plains of West
Texas where the Baptist religion and violence (often bred of “primordial
boredom” as he says in “Little Killing Ditty”) were the
order of the day. Again and again, Wiman revisits the intertwined
relation of violence and place, as at the end of “Native,” a poem
that relates the sixteen-year-old Wiman’s killing of “the flat black
snake/smashed flat//as the asphalt/flattening//under all ten
tons/of me,//flat as the landscape/I could see//no end of,
//flat as the affect//of distant killing/vigilance//it would take a
native/to know was love.” the West Texas of Wiman’s childhood
courses through these poems, and inevitably Wiman’s
vision of God is borne from and grounded in this first landscape:


Flat light and the white aisles of cotton,

sky like an idea of blue.

there’s no space like this,

wide, fraught with God...


In these unflinching returns in memory to his child and teenage
self, Wiman is simultaneously immersed or consumed by pain,
cancer treatment, and the state(s) of being that follow.
Revealingly, it is nothingness he often longs for:

More than this I want the silence that ensues,

to believe in nothing but the fact of absence,

striking out again in my hard horizonless country

whose one road releases me like heat as I walk on.



For anyone who has been in a pain so all-consuming or witnessed
that pain, Wiman’s primal need makes sense. Once in the
is razormusic, and Wiman remains steadfast, determined
not to shy away from the fact that “In pain we learn pain” (opening
poem of Section three), a statement that recollects
Dickinson, who made little distinction between her life and art
and continually enacted her struggle with faith and her struggle
to find God despite the continued losses, despair, and grief, as in
a poem like the highly compressed #633:


I saw no Way - the Heavens were stitched -

I felt the Columns close -

the Earth reversed her Hemispheres -

I touched the Universe -

And back it slid - and I alone -

A Speck upon a Ball -

Went out upon Circumference -

Beyond the Dip of Bell -

Dickinson journeys to the limits of what it is possible to know
about the Divine. Wiman has embarked upon just such a journey,
infusing his lyrics with the gritty, shit-fragrant, everair blue of his
West Texas youth, the claustrophobic elevated train rides of
Chicago, and the metastasizing rhymes of cancer-infused pain
and its treatment (which is not necessarily healing). It is no sur-
prise then that this erudite everyman dedicates his collection to
all those “blurred//by anxiety/or despair//[that they] might
find/here//a trace/of peace” (from “Prayer”).

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.

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