I have no concluded my reading of Christian Wiman’s book of poems entitled Once in the West. I have given a peer into this book of poetry by selecting one poem from each part. I would like to present a poem from the last part, “More Like the Stars.” I treasured each of the four poems in the last section, so it is hard for me to pick. But since it is the final poem of the book, I would like to show “Something in Us Suffering Touches.” This poem has a unique and specific shape, so I will not try to render it here. Instead I will post a link to it on Poetry Foundation. This is actually a link to all four poems of “More Like the Stars.” “Something in Us Suffering Touches” is the final poem of those four. However, I recommend reading all four.
I tell you it’s a bitch existence some Sundaysand it’s no good pretending you don’t have to pretend,don’t have to hitch up those gluefutured nags Hope and Helpand whip the sorry chariot of yourselftoward whatever hell your heaven is on days like these.I tell you it takes some hunger heaven itself won’t slaketo be so twitchingly intent on the pretty organist’s pedaling,so lizardly alert to the curvelessness of her choir robe.Here it comes brothers and sisters, the confessions of sins,hominy hominy, dipstick doxology, one more churchcurdled hymnwe don’t so much sing as haunt: grounded altos, gear-grinding tenors,two score and ten gently bewildered men lip-synching along.Your’e up, Pastor. Bring on the unthunder. Some trickle-piss tangentto reality. Some bit of the Gospel grueling out of you.I tell you sometimes mercy means nothingbut release from this homiletic hologram, a little fleshstepsideways, as it were, setting passion on autopilot (as if it weren’t!)to gaze out in peace at your peaceless parishioners:boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages, bored marriages,a masonry of faces at once specific and generic,and here and there that rapt famished look that leapsfrom person to person, year to year, like a holy flu.All these little crevices into which you’ve crawledlike a chubby plumber with useless tools:Here, have a verse for you wife’s death.Here, have a death for your life’s curse.I tell you some Sundays even the children’s sermon– maybe especially this – sharks your gutlike a bit of tin some beer-guzzling goateither drunkenly or mistakenly decides to sample.I know what you’re thinking. Christ’s in this.He’ll get to it, the old cunner, somewhere somehowthere’s the miracle meat, the aurora borealis blood,every last atom compacted to a graveand the one thing that every man must lose to save.Well, friends, I’m here to tell you two things today.First, though this is not, for me, one of those bilious abrading days,though in fact I stand before you in a rage of faithand have all good hope that you all go helpuntold souls back into their bodies,ease the annihilating No above which they floatthe truth is our only savior is failure.Which brings me to the second thing: that goat.It was real. It is, as is usually the case, the displacement of agencythat is the lie. It was long ago, Mexico, my demon days:It was a wager whose stakes I failed to appreciate.He tottered. He flowered. He writhed time to a fraught quiet,and kicked occasionally, and lay there twitching, watching me die.
Part 6, Memory in Death
I do enjoy remembering that morning. I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me. I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day. I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.
(Robinson, Gilead, p. 162)
This drew my mind to the closing paragraph of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey:
“Even now,” she thought, “almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita, but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while but forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
(Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, p. 192)
Part 5, The Bread of Affliction
John Ames recounts when his father gave him a piece of bread after a church had burned. John and his father (a pastor) were helping the members and leaders of this African American church after their church had burned down as a result of lightning. While taking a rest, John’s father gave him a peace of bread as a snack. Yet, John would remember that as an instance of communion.
It was so joyful and sad. I mention it again because it seem to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. Grief itself has often returned me to that morning, when I took communion from my father’s hand. I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was.
I can’t tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me. I can’t tell myself what it has meant to me. But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me.
This first line I quoted above reminds me of a line from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This line arises when a man named Rakitin brings up a situation to Grushenka earlier in the novel. Alyosha, the main character was present in the original situation and in the conversation about it. Rakitin recalls how Grushenka shamed Katerina Ivanovna. Katerina Ivanovna had kissed Grushenka’s hand three times; but when Grushenka God down to kiss Katerina Ivanovna’s hand, she refused to do so. The situation is rather more complicated than as represented. But this is Grushenka’s response to Rakitin bringing up this shameful story:
“Know? [Dmitri] doesn’t know anything. If he found out, he’d kill me. But now I’m not afraid at all, I’m not afraid of his knife now. Shut up, Rakitin, don’t remind me of Dmitri Fyodorovich: he’s turned my heart to mush. And I don’t want to think about anything right now. But I can think about Alyoshechka [Alyosha], I’m looking at Alyoshechka…Smile at me, darling, cheer up, smile at my foolishness, at my joy… He smiled, he smiled! What a tender look! You know, Alyosha, I keep thinking you must be angry with me because of two days ago, because of the young lady. I was a bitch, that’s what… Only it’s still good that it happened that way. It was bad and it was good. […] No it’s good that it happened that way,” she smiled again. “But I’m still afraid you’re angry…”
Sometimes we notice in reality this alloy of the good and bad, this amassed heap of indistinguishable content, in which exist the most terrible of things and the most beautiful.
Part 3, The Human Face
They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, I realize that there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is the truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. Boughton agrees.
Part 3, Existence
There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.
(p. 53, emphasis added)
I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial – if you remember them – and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There were all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.
I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.
The first excerpt, especially, recalls to my mind a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of which I have only Books VIII and IX:
…for life is by nature a good thing, and to perceive the good present in oneself is pleasant; and living is a choiceworthy thing, especially to those who are good, because existing is good for them, and pleasant, for in simultaneously perceiving what is good in itself, they feel pleasure. And if as the serious man stands in relation to himself, so he stands also in relation to a friend (for a friend is another [or different] self) – then, just as one’s own existence is choiceworthy to each, so also is the existence of a friend, or nearly so. Existing is, as we saw, a choiceworthy thing because a person’s perception that he is good, and this sort of perception is pleasant on its own account.
The first passage I quoted also reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Ash has always struggled with finding approval from his father, Mr. Fox, who seems to love Ash’s cousin even more than him. Yet, nearing the end of the movie, Ash and Mr. Fox have a conversation:
MR. FOX: The whole time I was putting paw over paw with your mother digging beside me [i.e. digging their foxhole], and I thought to myself, I wonder who this little boy…
ASH: Or girl!
MR. FOX: Right, ’cause at the time we didn’t know. I wonder who this little boy or girl is gonna be? Ash, I’m so glad he was you.
Part 2, Baptism and Blessing
I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.
That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.