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Grief and Exaltation in Christian Wiman’s Poetry

Every Riven ThingEvery Riven Thing by Christian Wiman

Reviewed by Jill Owens
Powells.com

Christian Wiman (currently, the editor of Poetry magazine) writes poems that are a study in torque, full of twisting force, words and lines pushing and pulling each other into forms of astonishing solidity and grace. His third collection, Every Riven Thing, is a beautiful and wrenching dialogue with death, decay, and the divine and is one of the best books of poems published last year.

More perhaps than most contemporary poets, Wiman uses overt form with grace and wit. His poems frequently scan and rhyme traditionally, and if the rhyme is sometimes slant or internal, or his poems suggest established forms but are instead his own creations, those warps demonstrate a fierce playfulness underneath the steel of his voice. Perhaps "wit" is better; "playful" is too airy a word for that note in Wiman's work, which takes among its subjects our disintegrating natural world, our warring, dog-like natures, and his own disease:

Needle of knowledge, needle of nothingness,
grinding through my spine to sip at the marrow of me.

To be so touched, so known, so beloved of nothing:
a kind of chewed-tinfoil shiver of the soul.

I think "grief" (and its variations) is probably the most frequently used word in the book. But there is a deep joyousness, too: a praise of the mortal and the divine that can only be called exalted.

Wiman's voice contains great authority. It ranges and shifts across the collection but is always honest, always reaching unflinchingly further. And he is simply masterful with language. There is scarcely a weak line or false note in the whole book, and his poems brim full of sound-beauty; you can feel the words on your tongue. For example, from "Hermitage":

What grew there grew in tangled
ways, minor thrivings of thorntrees, shocked
cacti, tumbleweeds maddening
past in the cages of themselves, everywhere a sense of
sharpness and thwartedness, he the last
twisted try of it all. Light meant
work.

As the preceding example shows, he is equally adept with imagery. These lines, from "Country in Search of a Symbol," might serve to describe his own writing:

It should be so pointedly, painfully human
it hints of machine, like a naked anorexic.
It should, while evoking eternity, cry time,
like a priest at meat.

Wiman is frequently compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins, for his thick soundscapes full of assonance and repetition as much as his subject matter, and while there are also hints of Wallace Stevens, Seamus Heaney, and even H. D., Wiman has a remarkably unique, assured, and cohesive voice. Every Riven Thing is a necessary book. It exemplifies why poetry is written.

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