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.
Currently, I am reading a book of poems written by contemporary poet Christian Wiman. He has titled the collection, Once in the West. This is my first real experience with contemporary poetry, and I am glad I have entrusted myself to Wiman. The book of poems, with the exception of the introductory poem entitle “Prayer,” is separated into three parts: “Sungone Noon,” “My Stop is Grand,” and “More Like the Stars.” I have just finished the first part, and I wish to quote one poem from this group of poems:
We lived in the long intolerable called God.
We seemed happy.
I don’t mean content I mean heroin happy
I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering
from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws
I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels
divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture
to be mean.
Dear Lord forgive the love I have
for you and your fervent servants.
I have so long sojourned Lord
among the mild ironies and tolerable gods
that what comes first to mind
when I’m of a mind to witness
is muriatic acid
eating through the veins
of one whose pains were so great
she wanted only out, Lord, out.
She too worshipped you
She too popped her little pill of soul.
Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone
is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?
I remember one Wednesday witness told of a time
his smack-freaked friends lashed him
to the back of a Brahman bull that bucked and shook
until the great bleeding wings the man’s collarbones
exploded out of his skin.
“It was then,” the man said, “right then…”
Yes. And how long before that man-
began his ruinous and (one would guess) Holy Spirit-less affair?
At what point did this poem abandon
even the pretense of prayer?
Imagine a man alive in the long intolerable time
made of nothing but rut and rot,
a wormward gaze
even to his days’ sudden heavens.
There is the suffering existence answers:
it carves from cheeks and choices the faces
we in fact are,
and there is the suffering of primal silence,
which seeps and drifts like a long fog
that when it lifts
but the same poor sod.
Dear God –
Christian Wiman, in his My Bright Abyss, discusses those times in our life filled with pain, where God seems absent. He describes this time in our lives in an extremely wonderful and accurate way.
There are definitely times when we must suffer God’s absence, when we are called to enter the dark night of the soul in order to pass into some new understanding of God, some deeper communion with him and with all creation. But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To fell him–to find him–does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.
-Christian Wiman My Bright Abyss
I attend a church called Christ Community Church, and I recently heard a message delivered on the ten commandments (this particular sermon was on the first four, which deal with our relationship to God, whereas the other six deal with our relationship to others). My pastor said, when speaking about idols, that we tend to bring God down to our level, so that we can “see” Him and control Him. This is wrong, and quite impossible. We cannot move or control God, or anything else that He has not willed Himself.
I read tonight a passage that not-so-coincidentally dealt with this in book I am currently reading. Christian Wiman, a modern, living poet who found faith after being diagnosed with cancer, writes in My Bright Abyss:
Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.
–My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman
We do not bring God down to us. In attempting to do such a thing, we are putting ourselves above God. Whenever we gain some insight about God or “Truth,” God is bringing us up to Him to places not possible for man to reach without His Lord.
Not only was this message something that I delighted in, but the Providence I witnessed by hearing both messages from completely separate “voices” made realize God’s presence even more.
[Photo by Joseph Jekel, but only possible with God]