Once in the West by Christian Wiman

Reviewed By

Kevin Young, editor of The Art of Losing, writes “One modern aspect of elegy is the way in which death seems our one certainty, and yet the one thing we cannot easily discuss.” This is when—this is why—we turn to poetry.

The speakers and people populating Christian Wiman’s Once in the West suffer the loss of lovers, childhood friends, family, and even a landscape made nostalgic by time and distance (West Texas), but Wiman offers more than lines of longing and absence: he looks at his own mortality, the pain rising from all gradations of unknowns and imminence, and then subverts the elegiac from memorial to electricity.

Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:

one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,

to make of the ache of inwardness—

______music maybe. . .

In the margins of this poem I wrote “or poetry!” next to “music maybe.” It is why we go to art: not only to make something of inwardness, but to look (as directly as possible) at inwardness and its implications. Throughout Wiman’s work, in both his poetry and prose, mortality confronts art, the human condition of limitation and finitude challenging aestheticism. And vice versa; art confronts our condition. This poem especially, but throughout Once in the West, Wiman embraces loneliness, that nuisance we seemingly always want to reject, dismiss, even annihilate. But it is in us, stubborn, sometimes dormant, sometimes eruptive, but often quiet and steadfast. Not to be anesthetized. We survive our solitude, our interiority of experience, by embrace and by touching that inchoate thing that connects us to all other creatures with hearts beating in their own insular ribcages. We are apart together.

“Music Maybe” ends with a child watching a bee bang against glass “like an attack of happiness.” The energy, the activity of relating, brings us to our most felt selves, not the perceived success of having done so. It flees, and in a blaze leaves only its burned impression on the back of our eyelids. Memory takes over.

In “Rust,” a title connoting the slow, unseen progression toward decay, memory is slow, subtle imitation—the movement away from the present. We are always falling into a new present, the past an exponential collection of elegy: “Is nothing pure? / Is it the soul’s treason to think so?”

Wiman avoids memorialization; Once in the West refuses monument, as that would not honor the activity of memory, the chaos of both the living and the no longer living. So, what then of art, which by its very nature makes a subject an artifice? “And art? // When the rocking stops. / A sense of being henceforth always after.” In another poem aptly titled “Memory Mercies” it is gently explained that “Memory’s mercies / mostly aren’t.” Wiman then inculcates the rest of that poem with images of temporality: “like a lucky / rock / ripping / electrically over // whatever water / there was.” And later “when it plunged // bright as firefly / into nowhere, // I swear.” Note the only adamancy comes from the poet and his language in “I swear.” What more do we have, as poets, but mostly has human creatures, than our shared language born from shared experience? In “Keynote”:

I had a dream of Elks,
antlerless but arousable all the same,

before whom I proclaimed the Void
and its paradoxical intoxicating joy,

infinities of fields our very natures
commanded us to cross,

the Sisyphean satisfaction of a landscape
adequate to loss.

When we fully inhabit our creatureliness—Sisyphean sweat dripping from our brows—we fully inhabit that which is fraught with anxiety, suffering, doubt. But also (paradoxically) love, introspection, and sensitivity. Joy lays in the confluence. In another poem titled “My Stop is Grand”: “I have no illusion / some fusion / of force and form / will save me.” The speaker, standing in the dark rut of an el station as the train hurls by, witnesses a fast shower of sparks, an ignited moment shared among strangers. Severe loneliness occupies Wiman’s lyricism. We are humans sharing the human experience, and yet each of us is contained in our unique experience. We cannot transcend ourselves. We are always just out of grasp of the other.

a grace of sparks
_____so far out and above
the fast curve that jostled
and fastened us
_____into a single shock of—
I will not call it love.

Though, of course, refusing the word in the last line only reinforces that “love” is the sole signifier he can get close enough to. His language resists, but doesn’t reject. Strangely, because of this I trust more readily than if he were to fully embrace, to call it outright, “love.”

Once in the West is populated by noise, chaos, things that recede and undulate. There is fire, burning, dawning, electricity, climbing—constant movement, though it isn’t always linear, momentous, or climatic. Religion is a system straining against this chaos; and Wiman fights religion and its failure to answer its own silence. God is in every poem, rejected in every poem, and therefore deconstructed. The false god of religiousity is dismissed for the greater unknown. God is presented variously as silent, insufferable, meaningless. And yet none of these qualifiers are negatives, or negations. “We lived in the long intolerable called God. / We seemed happy.” But later “Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?” This poem, titled “We Lived,” ends abruptly with “Dear God—” There is no conclusion to prayer. Or to poetry. The end is really a beginning: the act of calling out, interminably.

Once in the West begins with a poem called “Prayer” that extends itself to readers, inviting those “blurred // by anxiety / or despair” to these pages and, maybe, “find / here // a trace / of peace.” Wiman joins in centuries of raised voices seeking peace amidst pain, joining those constrained by anxiety, those both endeared to and fearful of their loneliness and finitude. Throughout the book, “prayer” surfaces always in confliction, disappointment, frustration, always in its guttural origins. But Wiman’s call to prayer receives only silence, again and again. In one poem, “I will not violate my silence with prayer.” And in another “I tried to cry out in the old way / of thanksgiving, ritual lamentation, rockshriek of joy. / There was no answer. Had there ever been?” The guttural origins descend from our ancestors, but our methods of expression innovate themselves. Not unlike poetry.

wimanSo much in Once in the West collapses in on itself, is unlearning, un-becoming and therefore, paradoxically, becoming a fuller—perhaps more original, pure, Platonic—version of itself. In one poem “believe in nothing but the fact of absence.” And elsewhere “a purity // of emptiness you had to admire.” Or simply, “I felt nothing.” Antitheticals are bound to one another: “whisper-rupture” and “feathery detonation.” Definitions obliterate themselves: “too meaningful / to mean.” Forms become their original forms: “sun before sun: undawn.”

Everything is paradox and that paradox, if it wasn’t so evasive and even ethereal, might be or offer or explain god. The unmeaning, meaninglessness of our lives is so intimately infused with moments of intense meaning. “Meaning” defines itself in an instant—this matters. But often that’s all we’re given, little synaptic, surging introspections that fire and abandon. Why it matters escapes us simultaneous with asking “why?” Temporality, presence, a flash and spark and light quickly waning in darkness. Wiman calls this grace. Memory proceeds out in imitation, gradations. It serves us, but mostly it fails. What else do we have though?

So much life in this poem
so much salvageable and saving love

but it is I fear I swear I tear open
what heart I have left

to keep it from being
and beating and bearing down upon me.

Poetry is prayer. Is the act of calling out, bearing witness, exposing our groan so as to share in the universal groan, which is both pained and loving. “This cry I am inside / is not mine.” Language is an act of hope rising out of its limitations, its human origins. Language is that atom of grace and the extrapolating imitations and memorials.

“Coming into the kingdom / I was like a man grown old in banishment, / a creature of hearsay and habit, prayerless, porous, a survival of myself.” But before there is kingdom, there is soil, Sisyphean sweat, skin. There is no conclusion, no transcendence, no revelation. Instead, an act of rebellion, a refusal to transcend and to instead remain in a moment that matters, that is: human connection. “Like the constellations / of kinetic quiet // that bound us beyond us . . . And I held your hand.”

Caitlin Mackenzie is a poet and essayist living in Eugene, Oregon and working in book publishing. Her work can be found in Fugue, CutBank, HTMLgiant, Structo, and Lambda Literary among others, and her poetry was recently nominated for the Forward Prize. More from this author →