Surviving the Silence: On a Long Poem by Christian Wiman

I

“The Parable of Perfect Silence,” which appeared in the December 2018 issue of Poetry magazine, dramatizes a conflict that might be reduced to a quotation from Dostoyevsky, one that Christian Wiman gives as the epigraph to an earlier essay, “The Limit.” Ivan Karamazov is speaking:

I don’t understand anything…and I no longer want to understand anything. I want to stick to the fact… If I wanted to understand something, I would immediately have to betray the fact, but I’ve made up my mind to stick to the fact.

Before exploring how the central idea of this quotation is dispersed throughout Wiman’s poem, and how it reacts against formal elements such as repetition, rhyme, and lineation, it’s worth attending to his remarkable essay. The Threepenny Review ran “The Limit” in its Fall 2001 issue. Subsequently, Wiman collected the piece in his 2007 book of essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. As with his two spiritual memoirs—My Bright Abyss (2010) and last year’s He Held Radical Light—the book can be read as a retrospective key to themes and aesthetics that animate his own poems. It is by no means the only pleasure, or utility, of his prose writings. Still, for no other poet of his generation does the shadow life of literary journalism and personal essays (one omits for the time being his anthologies, his past stewardship of Poetry, and his translations from Osip Mandelstam) so usefully, and so pleasingly, complement the poems. They trace the path of a poet “becoming” and, of equal value, remaining.

Wiman is alive to the jointly restorative benefits of poetry and prose-writing. In “A Piece of Prose,” an essay more than 20 years old, he concedes that for a poet the habit of prose can offer “great comfort,” can assist him or her in “surviving the silences” between poems. But it also can bring more coherence to one’s calling. He writes: “Prose can provide a poet with a means of direct self-discovery and articulation that poetry, with its impersonal formal imperatives in which personality and selfhood can seem to be annihilated, cannot.” In prose writings such as “The Limit,” Wiman conquers a crisis of articulation, of coherence, that also is the ostensible subject of “The Parable of Perfect Silence.” The poem, like the essay, eddies around a series of instances from Wiman’s personal history—the “fact[s],” in Dostoyevsky’s terms—and, in doing so, finds a source of relief he has tapped elsewhere for more overtly spiritual crises. This resource is intimately connected with poetic craft.

II

“The Limit” discharges its emotional power with the opening sentence: “I was fifteen when my best friend John shot his father in the face.” The two boys had been out dove-hunting in the woods, somewhere in West Texas, when the fateful accident occurred. The essay’s title refers literally to the bag limits on kills allowed to hunters by law. For Wiman, without his quite saying so, the term becomes a metaphor for the bounds of the inexpressible—and for a failure of understanding. Both boundary and failure are accentuated by the traumatic events in his recollection. I say “accentuated” because it is obvious that, for the narrator, the crisis has been chronic. Of his friend John, he writes, “there is some inner, inarticulate anger we share[d]” and “I myself was prone to sudden destructive angers and what my grandmother called ‘the sulls.’” Yet the milieu of Wiman’s home life (“my family’s history was not a placid one”) forbade self-analysis, favoring instead a “private climate of calm, eradicating all hints of darkness from [his family members’] lives like a country rigidly purging its past, steering conversations toward church and children, hiding the knives.” His recent family history holds a murder and two suicides.

After the hunting accident, and many years later the news that John has killed someone outside a bar, Wiman considers himself “marked.” The title of his essay can be taken to denote yet another boundary-line: one that separates the narrator from his childhood friend, with Wiman left wondering “by what logic or luck the courses of our lives, which had such similar origins, could be so different.” He is unable to cross—that is, to comprehend—the divide. Another writer might have rested on this confession of inadequacy. Not Wiman. For him the memories, while they hold meanings that never can be fully articulated, are yet a source of renewable energy. “There are wounds we won’t get over,” Wiman affirms near the end of his essay.

There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.

Although such crises can’t be resolved, he continues, they can be rendered into “an energy we may even be able to use,” thus granting “our lives a coherence that is not ‘closure,’” he says, referring to “a truce that is not peace.” The Dostoevsky quote may give the impression that to “stick to the fact” is sufficient. But that wasn’t the motive for his choice of epigraph. As Wiman explains, he used the quotation to protest a “sort of factitious understanding.” By contrast, he opts for a live and sustained engagement with the memories that trouble him.

The trick is not to fall for the trap of false consolation, but to exert formal pressure on the mystery long enough to have a meaningful dialogue with it. In another essay, “Finishes: On Ambition and Survival,” Wiman writes of “the sense of loss that is inseparable from the fulfillment of form” as dwelling “at the heart of the creative experience.” The problem is that “most young poets write less to organize life than to keep its chaos at bay.”

The difficulties of form, which if clung to beyond a certain point turn what was defense and refuge into an inescapable cage, must become the difficulties of life itself, one’s craft adapted to and altered within what Keats called ‘the van of circumstance,’ one’s passion for poetry transformed—but not attenuated, never relaxed—into a passion for life.i

The poets Wiman seems most to admire have attained this ideal fusion of craft and contingency. They have a have “a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions,” he writes in My Bright Abyss. In that book and its sequel, Wiman spots this capacity in such poets as Seamus Heaney (“He could make matter, inside the space of a poem, immortal, or make the concept of eternity, in more than one sense, matter”), A.R. Ammons (who produces “that feeling of collusion with eternity, of life and language riled to the one charge”), Norman MacCaig (“what happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see”), Wallace Stevens, Philip Larkin, Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, and Craig Arnold.

The latter poet, in Wiman’s eyes, virtually incarnates this principle. Wiman, who on multiple occasions has praised Arnold’s “To a Grapefruit” in print, asserts in He Held Radical Light that “there is some viable middle course between vision and will, some way of productively harnessing rather than either suffering or enslaving one’s spiritual turmoil.” Then, referring to Arnold, who disappeared in 2009 while hiking near a volcano in Japan, Wiman writes with the zeal of a convert: “In fact, I know there is, because I have seen it.”

III

In 2005, within a year of Wiman’s marriage to the poet Danielle Chapman, he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the blood. In the due course of grieving together, they rediscovered a religious instinct, of hope allied with “a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God.” He describes this transformation in “Love Bade Me Welcome,” an essay that originally appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of The American Scholar under a different title, “Gazing into the Abyss.”

From then on, Wiman’s thoughts about the vocation of poetry—and his criteria for good poems—shade into his considerations of what it means to be spiritually engaged. In “My Bright Abyss,” he writes:

[In] order for poems to honor the voice that creates them, a voice that, as even the most secular poets acknowledge, seems to come from ‘somewhere else’—in order, that is, for the poems to be poems—you have to acquire a monkish devotion to their source, and the silence within you that enables that source to speak.

In short, the poet no less than the believer must cultivate an ear for silence. Lest we reach for Simon and Garfunkel, this particular sound of silence is not associated with being voiceless or suppressed. Rather, Wiman speaks of a requisite grace for attending a mystery that never will be fathomed. “Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longing that will never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been,” he claims in He Held Radical Light. Elsewhere in the book, he adds: “Just as there are truths we can see only at a slant, there are truths the very authenticity of which depends upon their not being uttered.” Indeed, “there are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety.”

Even so, the question remains: which properties of craft can “productively harness” these silences in service of a poem? What kinds of local effects are achieved by a poem that toe-dips into unutterable truths?

IV

Again, some examples are furnished by the specific poets and poems he likes. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman praises Heaney’s “Sunlight,” an elegy to the poet’s aunt, for placing the abstraction to end all abstractions (“love”) in the poem’s final stanza. Riding a flow of minutely observed detail, the noun and concept become “almost tangible, at once authentically time-bound and defiantly timeless.” The famous stanza goes:

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Heaney’s feat typifies a procedure by which “physical things acquire an uncanny porousness, as if human life, and more than human life, were suddenly streaming through them.” Wiman associates this perspective with another line from Heaney (from “Shelf Life”): “Glimmerings are what the soul’s composed of.”

A similar translucence is met in Larkin’s “Aubade,” which, despite its refusal to find solace in death’s shadow, can be appreciated also for what it does affirm: at the very least, in Wiman’s words, “a stark, uncompromising clarity.” Although it can’t be confused for one of Heaney’s “glimmerings,” the final stanza of Larkin’s poem endows mundane events with a faintly numinous quality:

Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

As Wiman remarks,

[d]octors come to treat the sick, true, but presumably they also bring healing. Most of all, though, what really complicates the theme of this poem is its form. If you’re in complete despair, I don’t think you find yourself writing a poem, especially not a Bach-like marvel of music and counterpointed language like this one.ii

Soon after this observation, he submits that Larkin’s poem has accessed two co-extensive truths. One is the prospect of “oblivion.” The other is the opportunity of “heaven,” as glimpsed “by the light of timelessness that our spots of time, however fugitive or rare, have opened.”

Regardless whether we share his interpretation of “Aubade”—or sympathize with his religious views—Wiman’s comments about the Heaney and Larkin poems are pertinent when we begin (yes, finally!) to examine the relationship between craft and inarticulacy in a poem such as “The Parable of Perfect Silence.” In each case, Wiman is championing the poet’s ability to use stubborn facts to build a bridge or portal to a visionary plane. The skillful naming and framing of facts attending the unspoken can permit poets to achieve, if not literal meaning, then a lucid synthesis which, in He Held Radical Light, he also values in a poem by Levertov (“Our Bodies”): “the way a consummate articulation includes an irreducible silence, an extreme intimacy, an inevitable ‘distance’; and…the way the human heart and the heart of the matter have something to say to each other.”

Read in this context, the Dostoevsky quote preceding Wiman’s essay “The Limit” is not at all reductive. (The “just-the-facts” swagger has nothing in common with either Thomas Gradgrind or Sergeant Joe Friday.) As the staging ground for an ars poetica, rather, the epigraph recalls both Wordsworth’s imperative “to see into the life of things” (“Tintern Abbey”) and an early credo of Frost’s: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows”(“Mowing”).

V

Formally, “The Parable of Perfect Silence” is looser than many of Wiman’s previous lyrics, even his other longer ones.iii For all the seriousness of its two chief subjects—a father’s death and a perennial struggle with faith—the poem is downright chatty. Lines and stanzas are of varied length. Most of the lines can be read as self-contained syntactical units, though they often pile up and thus elaborate a thought, bringing in new references or implications to qualify an original statement. The effect is not only one of propulsion, but also one of being reined in by a set of recurring phrases and associations.

The diction is basic, sometimes banal. The metaphors, let us say, do not overreach. Rhymed end-words are rare. No consistent meter rules any of the stanzas. In this poem, craft reveals itself not principally through such elements but through tonal shifts and the use of repetition. As with most long essays in free verse, formal control of the poem is precarious. Yet I want to show how, by dint of a few pivotal instances, Wiman realizes a cohesive poem that honors both his father’s memory and the titular silence. He does so by “stick[ing] with the fact” (again, in Dostoevsky’s terms) but via an idiom at once more pliant and garrulous than some of the metrically tighter poems he has tended to praise for their visionary quality.

One can hardly imagine a flatter opening than Wiman’s three-line stanza:

Today I woke and believed in nothing.
A grief at once intimate and unfelt,
like the death of a good friend’s dog.

If there is any energy in this stanza, it dwells in the mildly humorous, willfully blunt metaphor of death two or three times removed. The trope is effective, however, as a baseline from which the speaker will climb as he bids to enter an inarticulate grief.

But if the poet is insulated from this grief and its source, then he still strives for a sudden relief that he claims the “past” no longer can provide: “Tired of the mind reaching back in the past for rescue / I praise the day.” With this line, the start of the next stanza, he suggests being haunted by memories that now fatigue him. He wishes to clarify to the reader that to “praise the day” is not a facile version of carpe diem, nor is it a fetishist’s grasp at quotidian objects for their own sake. He seeks a perpetual present in the flux of time and materials:

Time is at the table at which I sit and in the words I type.
In the red-checked shirt my father’s mother used to wear
when she was gardening and which I kept
because it held her smell (though it does no longer)
there is still plenty of time.

At once we detect that his aversion to “the past” is misplaced. What is his grandmother’s gardening shirt, after all, but a relic of bygone days, even if he once savored the immediacy of its scent? As the poem continues, we suspect that Wiman’s representation of this object—and of other memories he chooses to share—owes something to T.S. Eliot’s hallowed “point of intersection of the timelessness / With time” in “The Dry Salvages.”iv

Eliot is referring to the doctrine of incarnation, but the figure corresponds equally to Wiman’s wish to body forth images and anecdotes from his past even while he affirms their transience. Much later in the poem, he will recall the “parched front yard” of his childhood and a “sad little sprinkler like a flower of hell.” The following two lines would be superfluous if they didn’t speak for Wiman’s attitude toward many other memories he raises, his attempt to transmute them into a living canon, through faith and perseverance: “I don’t mean I saw them, though I did. / I mean they are what I remember, fleshed.”

Craft inheres in this canonization, his acts to “praise the day.” By craft I mean changes to the register of his language so that it mimics the halting progress of his self-inquiry. These tonal shifts are directed by repetition, variable line length, and even, on occasion, rhyme. Citing relevant examples, I’ll show how these functions lend formal and thematic unity to an otherwise prosy poem.

VI

By repetition, I don’t mean frequent or consistent recourse to a single phrase or metaphor. Instead, I mean lone instances of reviving a phrase or metaphor after the reader thinks it’s long buried. The gardening shirt from the first stanza, for example, is left behind until, seven stanzas later, we encounter the poet’s grandmother again:

…she found it more and more difficult to tend
to the family plot as Champion, Texas,
which is less town than time at this point,
a blink of old buildings and older longings the rare driver
flashes past. I took it upon myself to salt the graves
as I must have read somewhere would work for unwanted growths.

No thanks to this good deed, Wiman recounts, one day the poor woman leaned against the newly “leached earth” and “tumbled right down” into the grave of her own mother’s bones (“the woman from which she’d first emerged”). Taking an aerial view of this mishap (“To see that image you have to be that sky”), Wiman treats it as the emblem of an indissoluble bond between past and present. Several lines on, the start of the next stanza enacts another repetition: the grave or hole is likened to the state of poverty that characterized parts of the poet’s childhood.

You don’t climb out of poverty so much as carry it with you.
Some shell themselves with wealth.
Some get and spend, get and spend, skimming existence like a Jesus lizard.
But for those whose souls have known true want
—whose souls perhaps are true want—
money remains, in some sense, permanently inert,
like an erotic thought that flashes through a eunuch’s brain.

Apart from their intrinsic value, the lines have a transitional purpose. They blur into a thumbnail sketch of his hard-working, hard-marrying, financially reckless, but finally “unkillable” father. Then, in case we’ve forgotten about his grandmother’s false glide into the grave, Wiman halts his sketch with another metaphor involving a gap: “A hole is hard to carry.”

In the lines quoted above, the distance between the grave-gap and the poverty-gap has been traversed in a couple of stanzas. But other repetitions—i.e., identical phrases or metaphors deployed in different contexts, as in the second appearance of the poet’s grandmother—occur only after several stanzas have gone by. Thus, the “good friend’s dog” of the poem’s opening lines is not merely conjectural, we learn in Stanza 14:

Before my good friend’s good dog died
ten times a day she pressed her forehead to his
“to confirm the world and her place in it.”
Now she won’t even say his name.
Strange how the things that burn worst in one heart
one must keep silent to keep.

The stanza reflects an essential technique in Wiman’s poem. Using a stark figure or expression, seldom anything we can call imagery, he plants a flag (“the death of a good friend’s dog”) to which he will return much later, only this time to broaden the field of conquest. Here, musing over his friend’s behavior toward her “good dog,” Wiman finds his way to a more general statement, one that grounds the poem in an explicit theme (“Strange how the things that burn worst in one heart / one must keep silent to keep.”) This observation also arose in He Held Radical Light, as previously quoted: “Just as there are truths we can see only at a slant, there are truths the very authenticity of which depends upon their not being uttered.”

The poem offers many examples of Wiman’s technique, as I’ve described it, but I’ll display just one more. In the third stanza, he launches an anecdote that sounds like the set-up for a dark joke:

Two murderers keep their minds alive
while they wait to die.
They talk through slots in their doors
of whatever mercy or misery
the magazine has ordained for the day—
the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, say,
ten signs that a relationship is on the rocks.

This segment swells into a picture of how, in this “communion,” an illusion of order is gifted to the random and ephemeral. “This is a true story,” the poem continues,

one of them says sometimes by way of preface,
as if that gave the moment more gravity,
asked of the listener a different attention,
at once resisted and reinforced an order
wherein every hour has its sound, every day its grace,
and every death its design.

Many stanzas later, however, the poet brings us up short with this presumption:

Ten to one you thought of men.
The murderers, I mean.
But no. This is a true story.

After recalling the reader abruptly to his earlier anecdote, Wiman drops it and pivots to “another cell” housing “a woman [he has] known since childhood.” The woman is being restrained for some act of violence, probably to herself. Wiman exits the stanza by stating not only a theme, but the very title of his poem:

Punishment, perhaps, or some contagion of fate, finds her here,
her hair shorn, both wrists wrapped, her eyes open,
pondering the parable of perfect silence.

VII

In the poem’s title, the noun “parable” holds not only religious implications but also the hint of an elliptical statement, of strolling around a subject. Shrewd repetition, as we’ve seen, is one device to accomplish this circuitousness. The effect is of a singular brooding, of a type that can assimilate and process wildly disparate events but which, reconciling to them, leaves them unresolved. It’s all in the tone: apart from wielding phrases and metaphors in sharply different contexts, the poet uses linear flexibility and (very) occasional rhyme to effect changes in register. His shorter lines alternatively undercut or underscore his more effusive passages. Early in the poem, he resorts to parentheses. Speaking of his objective “to praise the day,” he adds:

I don’t mean merely some mythical isolate instant
like the mindless mindfulness specialist
who at the terminal cancer convention
(not that it was called that)
exhorted the new year’s crop of slaughters
(ditto)
to ‘taste’ the day, this one unreplicable instant of being alive.
(The chicken glistened.)

If the (parenthetical) shorter lines seem lazy, then they also make us let down our guard. We are ill-prepared, therefore, for a moving tribute that follows the appearance of similar lines later in the poem. Here Wiman describes the inmates of an asylum where his father is doctor.

One timid gentleman saved Saran wrap for five full years
and every night wrought an ever-more-solid ball
with which, it turned out, he planned to bash the skull
of the first soul he saw the dawn God blessed his weapon.
(A success story, alas.)
Another man with anvil hands sat six months of nights in faith
that there would come occasion of darkness, unguardedness, and vision
sufficient to rip from its socket one of my father’s bright blue eyes.
(Ditto.)
My father moved among them like a father.
He attended and pacified, he instructed and consoled.
Late to the trade, he worked too much,
and trusted his heart, no doubt, more than he should,
but was, by all accounts, at this one thing, and despite the end, good.

The clipped and parenthetical lines, like all those commas in the final three lines of this passage, defer a conclusion to the anecdote; and they hedge against conclusiveness. At the same time, they make his subsequent attempts at raw sincerity less didactic and more credible than they otherwise might have been. Another example occurs with Stanza 5, consisting entirely of four words, again in parentheses. “(For love, read faith.)” This alarmingly bland formula is resurrected seven stanzas later, but the parentheses are shorn. Having lowballed the phrase earlier in the poem, Wiman now can raise it to eloquence:

For love read faith
into these lines that so obviously lack it.
For love let words turn to life
in the way life turns to world
under the observer’s eye, the swirl
of particles with their waves and entanglements,
their chance and havoc, resolving
into some one thing:
a raptor on a rooftop, say.
No power on earth can make it stay.
But is it lost or released into formlessness
when we look away?

With this stanza, the reader gets the first intimation of coherence in a meandering poem. (That raptor, incidentally, has shown up earlier, when Wiman describes a pigeon “fluttering dumbly down” next to it, “suddening”—his coinage—“a world of strange relations / wherein there is no need for fear, or fat, / or meat.”) The end-rhymes of “say,” “stay,” and “away” in this passage lend his final three lines a formal gravity such as the aforementioned “murderers” were said to have achieved with the phrase, “This is a true story.” Even in the previously-quoted stanza about his father, rhyme imparts a solemn tone: “[he] trusted his heart, no doubt, more than he should, / but was, by all accounts, at this one thing, and despite the end, good.”

VIII

Cumulatively, the elements of repetition, rhyme, and lineation help to modulate the poem at crucial moments in the narrative, rendering it fluid and idiomatic so that Wiman can speak of abstractions in a high manner without sounding vapid on the one hand or grandiloquent on the other. The style tracks with the shifting tenor of his spiritual quest. It is perhaps the only appropriate garb for a poet at peace with uncertainty—or with a primal ignorance.

The love of God is not a thing one comprehends
but that which—and only by which—one is comprehended.v
It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being,
and like that time, we learn by its lack.
Flashes and fragments, flashes and fragments,
these images are not facets of some unknowable whole
but entire existences in themselves, like worlds
that under God’s gaze shear and shear and, impossibly, are:
untouching, entangled, sustained, free….

These “flashes and fragments,” these “entire existences in themselves,” can be taken as a proxy for the present that Wiman seeks more fully to inhabit. To “praise the day,” he must surrender to something very like Keats’ vision of negative capability. “It is an air you enter, not an act you make. / It is the will’s frustration, and is the will’s fruition,” he writes near the end of the poem. He calls this space “another country./ It is a language that I don’t know./ La por allá, la por allá, I repeat in my sleep. / The over there.”

The crowning irony is that “the over there” is ineluctably in the past. For some, the two lines I’ve just quoted will recall the famous opening sentence of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Yet Wiman follows up those lines by repeating his originally stated mission. He opens the final stanza with “Tired of the mind reaching back in the past for rescue / I praise the day.” No sooner has Wiman recalled this aim than he reprises a scene of his father “in a motel room where all five of us were sleeping, / which is not even past but a flame as I say it.” In this line, too, we glimpse the specter of a famous quote, now Faulkner’s (from Requiem for a Nun): “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The poem ends by affirming a oneness with this past through the strenuous work of recollection. As in the Dostoevsky quote, “the fact[s]” are sufficient. Out of respect for his father, and for the silence in himself, the poet no longer seeks to explain, preferring “to stand in this implausible light where to whisper would be too much, / and anyway what’s next is known, Dad, and near[.]” But as his prose writings suggest, it is a stance open to all poets. If this is so, then what Wiman calls, in the poem’s final line, “the consolation that comes when there is nothing to console” can be construed as one of the many psychic rewards of writing poems.

i# This insistence on craft not as a container but as a conduit of life is also at work in Wiman’s introduction to The Open Door (2012), an anthology he co-edited with Don Share.

“Formal decisions are ethical decisions. The sound and form of the poem are everything; they buffet it against its hard journey through time and indifference. Or, to change the metaphor, they enable it to insinuate itself into the hard carapace of our consciousness, so that the poem’s ‘message’—Look up from your insulated life, in these instances, Enlarge your idea of what it means to be human—won’t just bounce off the glaze of us. Craft matters because life matters. Craftless poetry is not only as perishable as the daily paper, it’s meretricious, disrespectful (of its subjects as well as its readers), and sometimes…even unethical.”

ii# Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz held grimmer views of this poem and its ending. From Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry (1995): “The poem does not hold the lyre up in the face of the gods of the underworld; it does not make the Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all the odds. For all its heartbreaking truths and beauties, ‘Aubade’ reneges on what Yeats called ‘the spiritual intellect’s great work.’” Heaney quotes Milosz: “[T]he poem leaves me not only dissatisfied but indignant.”

iv# For this reader at least, Wiman’s assurance—that “there is plenty of time” woven into his grandmother’s shirt—evokes Poem 82 of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali:

Time is endless in thy hands, my lord. There is none to count thy minutes.

Days and nights pass and ages bloom and fade like flowers. Thou knowest how to wait.

Thy centuries follow each other perfecting a small wild flower.

We have no time to lose, and having no time we must scramble for a chance. We are too poor to be late.

And thus it is that time goes by while I give it to every querulous man who claims it, and thine altar is empty of all offerings to the last.

At the end of the day I hasten in fear lest thy gate be shut; but I find that yet there is time.

v# In He Held Radical Light, Wiman refers to the phrase “sun-comprehending glass” in Larkin’s “High Windows” as “a revelatory image that rips open that poem in the way a poem can rip open a life.” It may not be fanciful also to detect Larkin’s touch in the phrase “some mythical isolate instance,” quoted earlier from Wiman’s poem. Larkin’s “Here” marks poetry’s first and most memorable use of “isolate” as an adjective: “Isolate villages, where remoed lives / Loneliness clarifies.”

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He works in Washington, D.C. as the research director for a federal government agency.
Sunil Iyengar

Author: Sunil Iyengar

Sunil Iyengar writes poems and book reviews. He works in Washington, D.C. as the research director for a federal government agency.