Spiritual Immobility

Once In The Westby Christian Wiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 128p $23

I grew up in Omaha, the youngest in a large Catholic family. We belonged to the Jewish Community Center, where I took swimming lessons in its bleak and echoing indoor pool. I failed Beginners three times. I never made it to Minnows. I thought I would never properly learn to swim. It was a dark time.

Advertisement

This hasn’t much at all to do with a poetry review.

Except to make the point, maybe, that any review is really about the reviewer himself. In every word he’s talking about his childhood in sideways fashion. He’s judging literature but really he’s talking about swimming lessons. In one way or another, it’s always about the swimming lessons.

•••

Once in the West, by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014). Christian Wiman’s new collection of poems Once in the West is fantastic. Buy it. If you don’t buy books of new poetry—and you don’t—buy it anyway. It is approachable, violent, frightening, lovely, funny and somewhat mystical—but not in a way that makes you loathe things that seem mystical. The words move, they don’t sit back on their heels. There is urgency here.

Many of the poems are about the days of Wiman’s youth in Kansas. (I assume anyway they are about Wiman. Whenever poets say “I” or “me” they usually are talking about themselves. When gritty rock stars use the first person they may well be talking about someone else. John Cougar Mellencamp singing about “Forty-four empty acres/ that used to be my farm” refers not to himself but to a man who actually tills the earth and is forlorn and bankrupt and yet he tills, or did.)

Wiman’s “Native” begins:

At sixteen...hellbent
on being not
this, not that
I drove
a steamroller
smack-dab over
a fat black snake
Up surged a cheer
from men
so cheerless
cheers
were grunts, squints,
whisker twitches
it would take
a lunatic acuity
to see.
 

And now the reviewer surgically, bracingly and with masters’ degrees, analyzes these stanzas: these words feel really good to read and to say.

In “Keynote” Wiman beholds men at an Elks’ lodge beholding him. He is suddenly taken back to his childhood in the town where both he and these Elks grew up.

I saw
I saw
like a huge claw time tear through the iron
armory and the baseball fields
the slush-puppy stand
the little pier at Towle Park Pond....
 

Time’s huge claw somehow reminds me of Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. The girl steam shovel with happy eyes and gaping smiley mouth is a thing I have not thought of for years. I think of it now, and it makes me glad. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Buy this book too.

The preacher in “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians” is a man you want to give sermons to your congregation every Sunday, even though some of the spiritually immobile will be alarmed. Toward the end of a fantastic dressing-down on what the preacher’s life is really about, he declares,

I tell you some Sundays even the children’s sermon
maybe especially this—sharks your gut
like a bite of tin some beer-guzzling goat
either drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample.
 

But, in the end, Christ will take care of all the struggles of the minister’s life, won’t he? Our preacher concludes: “the truth is, our only savior is failure.”

Behold the double meaning. The new fad of Silicon Valley (entire conferences dedicated to Great Failures as fertile loam for Great Start-Ups) coupled with the Passion of Jesus Christ. Nicely done.

Wiman’s last poem begins, “Love is the living heart of dread.” He speaks about going to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago with his wife and two little girls. Looking at the minnows, (small “m”), Wiman is struck not so much by these tiny fish, as by what they do to the water they swim in:

For me for a long time
not the minnows mattered
but the pattern after: miraculous
I didn’t think
to think....
 

To forget thinking and just watch and just be. A fine and rare gift for addled and thought-besieged humans. Wiman reminds us of this truth without telling us what a truth it is, like the best literature does.

Motherland Fatherland Homeland-sexuals, by Patricia Lockwood (Penguin, 2014). This is strong poetry, a great deal of which weaves in, around and through sex. It features strange or violent or startling renderings of sexuality and its malcontents. And the truth is, if there is well-crafted or vividly displayed (or a stark approbation of) sex in any work of art, it tends to overtake that work.

It becomes the sex book. The sex poetry. The sex movie. Think of “Basic Instinct.” Think of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The indie film “Blue is the Warmest Color.” The flower paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. The early albums of Liz Phair.

The first thought is the sex. It almost always is. That’s just how it is with this unitive, generative and pleasurable force of nature. (Consider Pope Paul VI. When hearing his name, is the first thing that comes to your mind that he “fostered ecumenical relations with the Eastern Orthodox Church?” Or is it “birth control, birth control, birth control?”)

Sometimes the artist desires this sexual notoriety, sometimes he or she doesn’t. Whether Lockwood wants it or not, in one poem she addresses this phenomenon with heart-breaking self-awareness. In “Rape Joke” she writes, “The rape joke is that if you write a poem called Rape Joke, you’re asking for it to be the only thing they remember about you.”

The poems in Motherland give a living, human quality to things you would never think of as being alive or human. Waterfalls, countries, swans, a basketball dunk. The collection does not merely anthropomorphize these things. (“The dog smiled at me.”) It brings fear, dignity, abandonment, rage and weirdness to every part of the known world. It seems unfair to consider this to be a book just about sexuality. It is so much more.

In the poem “Search ‘Lizard Vagina’ and You Shall Find,” the country of Canada is a person that can look up the phrase “lizard vagina.” (Okay, it is a lot about sexuality.) The geography of Canada takes on a beating heart and a living mind. It becomes a person, or a person becomes the land. The thought is worth more thinking—how we are land and land is us. Land that can look up prurient phrases like any 12-year-old.

“The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” alludes to the way deer, and subsequently women, become used, over-sexualized (perhaps? am I reading too much into it? It is not, after all, an after-school special of a poem.)

Every deer gets called Bambi
at least once in its life, every deer must answer to Bambi...
every deer hears LOOK OH LOOK it’s Bambi...
When the deer all die they will die of genocide, of one
baby name for the million of them.
 

Maybe it takes a kind of shock, a poem title that has a deer undergoing sexual assault, for us to get at a new feeling about something we hear about so often—The Degradation of Women. Through deer and Disney we are startled into thinking about this other sad thing we’d maybe rather not think about.

Lockwood’s M.O. in these poems is a kind of abandon—it feels as if she is just talking, the work a stream-of-consciousness. But it is a rigorous abandon. The poems are not mere words thrown onto a page. They do something, and deliberately.

There is one sin in this book. (Unless Lockwood is Catholic or a more strict Christian or an Orthodox Jew, for whom sex before marriage is a sin and by extension celebrating sex outside of marriage in lyric form is probably some kind of secondary sin, in which case she has sinned all over the place.)

Other than this, her chief sin is reverse pretentiousness: in the first words of her back-page bio Lockwood tells us that she was born in a trailer.

The most straightforward and devastating poem in the collection is “Rape Joke.” The “you” in the poem is the author speaking about herself. The following are a few lines from the poem. They need no comment from me.

The rape joke is you went home like nothing happened, and laughed about it the next day, and the day after that....
The rape joke is it wore a goatee. A goatee.
The rape joke is that he was your father’s high school student—your father taught world religions.
The rape joke is that when you told your father, he made the sign of the cross over you and said, “I absolve you of your sins,
in the name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,”
which even in its total wrongheadedness, was so completely sweet.
 

In the last line of the poem Lockwood’s rapist twines up fun-in-the-sun Beach Boys music with this horrific experience:

The rape joke is that the next day he gave you “Pet Sounds.” No, really. “Pet Sounds.” He said he was sorry and then he gave you “Pet Sounds.”

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press, 2014). This is a sad, alarming, philosophical, highly self-aware piece of writing. In the form of prose-poems, Citizen (a National Book Award finalist) primarily discusses black experience encountering white experience. Rankine unveils the black body in the space of the world, and what it does to those around it, and how it is perceived, and the disruption it makes for others.

My naïveté (I didn’t know white people still said these things!) is illuminated by this collection. A man outside a conference room, unwittingly in earshot of Rankine, tells another man that “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.”

A woman tells Rankine (whom she has just met) that her son wasn’t accepted at a college “because of affirmative action or minority something—she is not sure what they are calling it these days and weren’t they supposed to get rid of it?”

A man refers to “boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers.” When Rankine protests this, and then goes on to say, “No need to get all KKK on them,” the man says, “Now there you go.”

Rankine’s response to “There you go” reveals that this book is not a mere sociological tallying up of pathetic moments of racism. It is a window into the honest humanity of Rankine and how she responds to those moments. Rankine repeats the man’s words, “There I go?” She feels “irritation begin to rain down.” Nonetheless, she writes, “something about hearing yourself repeating this stranger’s accusation in a voice usually reserved for your partner makes you smile.”

Rankine explores the racial implications of Serena Williams’s professional tennis career. Serena’s “three second celebratory dance” (a “crip walk”) after she won a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics in Wimbledon Stadium was reported by various media as “an act at which you couldn’t help but shake your head.” “What Serena did was akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church.... “ “What she did was immature and classless.”

The implication is that by her dance Serena was endorsing and even celebrating the violent world of the thuggish street criminal. It is beyond ridiculous. The careers of Serena and her sister Venus, says Rankine, have been plagued by subtle and not-so-subtle racism since Day 1. Few could argue with this.

Rankine indicates that racism was involved in one of the most notorious events of Serena’s career. At the same time, she fails to provide any hard supporting evidence that this is the case. At match point of the 2009 U.S. Open Finals, Serena was called for a foot-fault that led her to lose the match. It is an atrocious call. Serena responds to the line judge viciously. “I swear to God I’m f***ing going to take this f***ing ball and shove it down your f***ing throat!”

“Serena’s behavior,” says Rankine, “suggests that all the injustice she has played through all the years of her illustrious career flashes before her and she decides finally to respond to all of it with a string of invectives.”

This may well be true. But doesn’t Serena deserve the respect of a simple bit of reporting by Rankine as to whether years of injustice actually did flash through her mind? Maybe she felt the outrage any tennis player might feel at a line-judge’s ridiculous call. Where is the confirmation from Williams as to what she was thinking?

Rankine’s reporting also suffers when she discusses the infamous head-butt delivered by the French star Zinedine Zidane in overtime of the 2006 World Cup final. The recipient of the headbutt, Marco Materazzi, was reported to have called Zidane, an Algerian by birth, a “terrorist,” leading to Zidane’s retaliation. Rankine places this incident in the catalogue of racist moments she has been detailing.

However, should it be there? Both Materazzi and Zidane later confirmed that Materazzi said something foul about Zidane’s sister, not about his being a terrorist. The Sun, The Daily Star and The Daily Mail each had to pay damages to Materazzi and make a front-page apology for their insistence (based on the interpretations of lip-readers) that Materazzi had called Zidane a “dirty terrorist,” or “son of a terrorist whore.”

Why does Rankine hold on to the earlier, disproved account? I do not know. Am I missing something? Did I read the poem wrong? Detailing with certainty overt racist moments that may not be there diminishes this book.

But these failures do not swallow up the collection as a whole. It is a thoughtful, enraging and depth-sounding piece of work.

Some Permanent Things, by James Matthew Wilson (Wiseblood Books, 2014). I planned on reviewing this before I met James Matthew Wilson in person. He is very nice. Wilson told me, among other things, that he and his wife would love to save enough money to renovate his kitchen. After our encounter I worried I would not like the book. I feared I would break this man’s heart with a bad review. (The ego!)

People, let’s get this man’s kitchen renovated. Let’s buy this book. My fears have been allayed.

Some Permanent Things is the work of a man who does not scold, preach or sit high above his subjects or the reader. He tells, reports, identifies from ground view.

Wilson talks about idolizing The New Yorker magazine. He writes about a mansion in South Bend whose attempts to look old and “classical” come off as sad and forced. He turns phrases marvelously, striking quick to a sharp image. In “The Gypsies”: “My senses woke to madrigals tongued in the light of gypsies, their curious foreign sounds.”

“Father Mac’s Wake” talks about his parish priest and “The Church he built/ In the brute modern style of a time/ When everyone knew the face of Pius XII and Paul VI was newly vilified.”

The young Wilson is at the priest’s wake and does not want to be at the wake. His friends are playing outside. As a minor act of protest, he scratches with a key into a pew, which only serves to prefigure a later spiritual surrender. “And those key-stabs I made may still be scarred/ In the pew’s aging wood/ a seeming accident/ that only I can read in memory/ Signs of a last attack before defeat.”

Wilson is not even afraid to rhyme his poetry! It is utterly refreshing. “She offered him the heart-meat of two doves/ The smoke and tartness of wine marinade/ It seemed he tasted her at one remove/ And took with gratitude what she had made.”

A complaint (Mr. Wilson, you are still very nice) is that, structurally, nearly all of the poems have about the same tenor, the same overall feel. The passion in the words is rarely mirrored by fault lines and eruptions in their rhythm and flow. Reading the poems one after the other lulled me into a feeling of...being lulled. I would love to have seen him break this pattern.

For my money the best poem in this work is “A Note for Ecclesiastes. In Memoriam Rae Lee Lester.” In it Wilson fights off the resigned air that the Book of Ecclesiastes might cast over a woman’s death: just another turning; another event in the sameness of all the world; women have come and women will go and more will take their place. There is nothing new under the sun.

Wilson protests everyone who thinks this way:

The flint-lipped quietists, the smug advisor
Certain no treasonous plot, utopian scheme
Or menu in an obscure restaurant
Contains a newborn thought, a hope that hasn’t
Been crushed before—in more auspicious times.
Wilson concludes:
Is wisdom wise enough never to dare
To try to take the measure of our loss
We do not need to know all things have been
But only to say, once more and in fitting
Voice, that she was.
 

Here is a prophetic cry for simply paying attention to what is. You might say this about the whole book.

•••

When I was 24 my housemate Lynn took me to a recreation center in Dorchester, where we lived, and taught me to swim. Old women in black bathing caps swam in the lanes next to mine. Over the weeks I got the rhythm. Kick and breathe, kick and breathe. Cup the water with your hands, push it back, easy now, easy. The day I really got it, the day I finally had it down, the grandmothers of outer Boston clapped for me. I looked over, startled. They had been watching. They were invested. They helped birth me into Minnow.

Beginning with a copy of Tulips and Chimneys lying around our house, this was about the same time I started reading poetry.

•••

In Brief

Slant Six, by Erin Bellieu (Copper Canyon Press, 2014). I like this because I am from Nebraska and Bellieu is from Nebraska and at times she reveals my soul. I am annoyed by Slant Six because she is from Nebraska and I am from Nebraska and at times she reveals my soul. Why would I want someone revealing my soul? Several of the poems are funny, which I like. In “Ars Poetica for the Future”: “The Rapture came/ and went without incident/ but I put off folding my laundry/ just in case.”

Idiot Psalms, by Scott Cairns (Paraclete Press, 2014). These poems are skillfully rendered. But many of them feel elliptical, generalized. They use the word “obtain” more than seems advisable. Eventually you can deduce something, but the words often circle the runway and do not land. “One’s waking of itself obtains/ a rising and—one might say—a dazed,/ surprising glee at having met/ within sleep’s netherworld one’s own/ dim shadowed psyche, and survived.” Hmmmm. As with Lockwood, Cairns’s great offense lies in the author description. On the lower left hand of the back cover there is a drawing of Cairns, an icon of Scott Cairns, with quill pen and a halo. I am not making this up.

The Poems of Jesus Christ, translated by Willis Barnstone (W. W. Norton, 2002). I feared this book would reduce Christ’s life to aphorisms taken out of context. It would mask his status as the best person who ever lived who was also God. It does this, a little. But it also sets apart and lights up his words, like embers in gray ash. In “Walking on the Waters of the Sea,” nearly the whole of the Gospel is summed up in three lines. “Take heart/ It is I/ Do not be afraid.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

This is a real book, written by a real person, suffused with the raw wounds of her defeat.
Robert M. ShrumOctober 19, 2017
U.S. President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington on January 12, 2016. (CNS photo/Evan Vucci, Pool via Reuters)
‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ is a sort of “I told you so,” though Coates takes little pleasure in having to say it.
Antonio De Loera-BrustOctober 12, 2017
Barton Cross, a Navy serviceman, was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942. Then his brothers tried to get him back.
Thomas RzeznikSeptember 29, 2017
Sir Salman Rushdie in New York City, Aug. 21, 2015 (Writer Pictures via AP Images)
Rushdie is a writer keen to take on big, messy matters—and few are bigger or messier these days than American life at home and abroad.
Randy BoyagodaSeptember 29, 2017