“The Burning Sermon”: A Review of Christian Wiman’s Hammer Is the Prayer

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Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems
By Christian Wiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224pp., $26.00)

The dust jacket of Christian Wiman’s new book, Hammer Is the Prayer: Selected Poems, bears a bold endorsement from the poet-critic Clive James. “The best thing about Christian Wiman,” writes James, “is not that he reminds you of previous poets: it’s that he makes you forget them.” This blurb is, to borrow Wilde’s formulation, perfectly phrased and quite as true as any observation in civilised life should be. And yet it is perfectly wrong. Like most good poems, Wiman’s everywhere display the traces of both peers and predecessors. Indeed, one of the collections from which this volume was selected is a book of poems translated from the Russian of Osip Mandelstam, who is of course just such a previous poet. And formally, Wiman has joined a growing number of American poets in the demilitarized zone dividing traditional accentual-syllabic rhymes from standard-issue paratactical free verse. Listening to Wiman’s poems, it is hard to miss the distant rumble of military exercises to north and south.

For instance, one of Wiman’s favorite modes of composition marries insistent end-rhymes and emotional hyperbole with syntax-blasting enjambment and oblique associative logic to produce a result that sounds, as in this excerpt from “My Stop Is Grand,” something like Coventry Patmore channeling Rae Armantrout:

I have no illusion some fusion ……….of force and form will save me, bewilderment ……….of bonelight ungrave me

as when the El shooting through a hell ……….of ratty alleys where nothing thrives but soot ……….and the ratlike lives that have learned to eat it

screechingly peacocked 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

but at least some brief and no doubt illusionary belief ……….that in one surge of brain we were all seeing one thing: ……….a lone unearned loveliness struck from an iron pain.

Throughout Hammer Is the Prayer, Wiman’s delight in formal play is evident. A contrarian chorus dishevels a navel-gazing meditation. Naked repetition parses a convoluted line of praise. Whole poems construct themselves from sentence fragments. And new words are birthed continually through Germanic noun-stacking and internettish verbification. When Wiman picks up received forms, he does so in pursuit of novel effects, as in the haunting “Poštolka,” which ends with the image of a falcon watching a young couple through a hotel window:

Wish for something, you said. A shiver pricked your spine. The falcon turned its head and locked its eyes on mine,

and for a long moment I’m still in I wished and wished and wished the moment would not end. And just like that it vanished.

The penultimate stanza, like most of those preceding it, emphasizes the poem’s formal contract (iambic trimeter rhymed ABAB) through near-perfect adherence. The final stanza takes advantage of this emphasis to violate the contract all the more productively, starting with the line, “and for a long moment I’m still in,” which enacts its own nostalgia with a shuffling extra foot. The next line, “I wished and wished and wished,” repeats in advance the mate of the poem’s closing rhyme, heightening our anticipation both of the complex sound (íʃt) and of the wish’s as-yet unnamed object. The third line foreshadows the poem’s end by concluding the A rhyme in a weak, mismatched, assonant pairing (“in” / “end”). And all of this subtle aural manipulation prepares us for the poem’s last word, “vánĭshed,” which provides what is nearly a true rhyme for “wíshed,” except of course for the crippling loss of the accent. What ought to be a perfect match is softly, utterly spoiled. The form includes the reader in the speaker’s disappointment—at the loss of the moment, the loss of the wish, and perhaps also the loss of the second-person witness who appears as both the poem’s Frances Lucy Wightman (“Come to the window…”) and, by my lights, its true subject matter. All in all, a handsome trick.

Of course, a stickler might observe that, for every deft prosodic sleight of hand in Hammer Is the Prayer, there are half a dozen other spots where the meter fibrillates or a rhyme word wags the line. One instance appears earlier in “Poštolka,” when Wiman introduces a mixed metaphor wherein a blushing cheek is likened to a budding flower which then promptly liquefies, all for the fairly transparent purpose of answering and then anticipating the demands of the rhyme scheme (“room”/“bloom,” “melt”/“felt”). And even the dense, ambitious poem that furnishes the title of Wiman’s celebrated 2010 collection, Every Riven Thing, gets its shoelaces tied together by an overly clever device involving progressively shifting punctuation (“God goes, belonging to…” “God goes. Belonging, to…” “God goes belonging. To…”). Though nimble and enthusiastic, as a technician Wiman can be unreliable. Still and all, it is the mood of these poems, if not always the music, that lingers in the room well after one has turned the page.

By far the longest piece in Hammer Is the Prayer is a versified fictional biography called “Being Serious.” The title is something of a play on words, the main character being a man actually named Serious. Punny archness of this sort spans the poem’s 21 sections as they measure the life of Serious from shortly before his birth to long after his death. “To be serious is to be alone! / Serious cries out,” in a late section, alone. Elsewhere: “Serious isn’t Stupid, / Though they go to the same gym, / Serious sees him dropping weights / Or picking his butt and thinks, / At least I’m not him.” Wiman even relates the early sensations of an unborn Serious with a highfalutin fart joke: “Here and there there’s been a shout, / A song he seemed to be inside, / The weird whale-calls of her gas. / This, too, shall pass.” Such gibes and gambols stiffen fast, but Wiman is only blowing the same slide whistle of despair one hears so memorably in Paris Spleen and Waiting for Godot and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Having romanced a morality play’s worth of minor allegorical figures (“After Morose and Mad and Neurotic; / After almost falling for Grief, / Who was so exotic…”), Serious reflects, in a goofily heartbreaking passage, on the best of his anthropomorphic bedfellows:

But how easy it is to be himself with Doom, Serious thinks, as he puts the wine in to chill And sets two glasses on a tray, Who always wants whatever Serious wants And always agrees with what he has to say; Who doesn’t need to hear that whole spiel About “going too fast” or “needing more room”; And who doesn’t probe and pry that long needle into his brain What do you feel? What do you feel? Until it’s all Serious can do not to stand up and scream: Pain!

Lucky to be alive. And if he still has no clear idea where she lives, And never knows quite when she’ll arrive, Still, something about Doom feels right To Serious, and he looks forward to their dates. He checks himself in the mirror, dims the light, And waits.

At 39 pages, “Being Serious” claims more than a fifth of the whole Selected. And in all those lines, Serious himself does little more than furiously cogitate. It is customary among storytellers to restrict accounts of secondary characters to their interactions with the protagonist. In “Being Serious,” however, other people are often reduced not just to supporting cast in Serious’ life, but to ethereal objects in his skull. Almost everything of any note that happens in the poem happens within the confines of thought. (There is a telling moment when Serious, recollecting a disastrous camping trip, notes that he has only ever lived “one night of his life outdoors.”) By the end, “Being Serious” feels something like The Death of Ivan Ilyich, if Ivan passed his days in a Prufrockian funk, locked in his dorm room, thinking up sweet comebacks.

One leaves the poem with an impression that the life of Serious has amounted, more or less, to the life of Serious’ mind. But if “Being Serious” demonstrates this equation on a larger scale than any other poem in Hammer Is the Prayer, the math itself is consistent throughout the book. Like Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace, Wiman is at heart a poet of the inner life. His poems address the human soul (that infinite space bounded in a nutshell) with such exuberance and occasional splendor that one scarcely objects when they falter at the edges of the singular consciousness. In a poem called “One Time,” he echoes English poetry’s most exquisite solipsist, John Keats: “I do not know how to come closer to God / except by standing where a world is ending / for one man.”

Wiman’s sounding of the interior is profound, so one can only shrug if his depictions of the exterior run reliably to the grotesque. Just among his fellow Christian Southerners, one could say the same of no less than Flannery O’Connor. In “One Good Eye,” for example, he shows us a pair of elderly relatives bidding farewell to the poet’s younger self:

my uncle blundering above me, gasping tobacco and last enticements; —while my aunt, bleary, tears bright in her one good eye, fussed and wished the day was longer, kissed and sloshed herself around me.

In “Not Altogether Gone,” he surveys a herd of average Americans in the act of shopping:

demons inked on arms, nicotine tans, hoosegow gazes, chemical grins, galactic buttocks, some terrycloth termagant shrilling at her overblooded underminded whelp Slim! That boy. Goddamnit Slim. Slim!

And in “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians” he delivers up a church congregation as perceived by their own pastor:

boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages, bored marriages, a masonry of faces at once specific and generic.

However pitiless, each of the above descriptions is succeeded by some mitigating expression of grace. (Of course, as with Larkin’s tirade on senility, “The Old Fools,” the ending’s gentleness salves but cannot close the wounds inflicted by the beginning and the middle.) Even when Wiman narrows his swarming Boschscapes to the subject of a single figure, he can struggle to portray other human beings with persuasive compassion. Here he is, apostrophizing a sometime sexual companion toward the end of a woozy love poem titled “Sweet Nothing”:

O Rebecca, wry Rebecca, with your furtive interiority and your English teeth, your country Suffolk candor and vaguely tubercular beauty, you are not alone.

“You are not alone.” Modern love seldom gets more heartfelt that this. And yet one imagines poor Rebecca receiving this tribute with less than a swoon. Indeed, on the Ginsberg–Shakespeare sliding scale of erotic magnanimity, Wiman’s invocation falls a good deal closer to “I’m with you in Rockland / where you’re madder than I am” than it does to “I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot, / If thinking on me then should make you woe.”

But Wiman’s sometimes ungenerous vision of his fellow primates is not born of any general misanthropy. Rather, he is a natural soliloquist, and as a poet he seems most at ease when his poems are at their least social. Consider two passages from “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone,” both depicting the same small-town waitress. In the first, Wiman pictures her among her customers, as she was in life:

She knew to nod at the litany of cities the big-rig long-haulers bragged her past, to laugh when the hunters asked if she’d pray for them or for the quail they went laughing off to kill, and then—envisioning one rising so fast it seemed the sun tugged at it—to do exactly that.

Even when illustrating the goodheartedness of a woman he tags as “Unmarried, childless, homely, ‘slow,’” Wiman frames his praise within the limits of his subject’s comprehension—and those of her patrons’ empathy. She knows to laugh at the joke customers make at her expense, hardly realizing she does not understand it, and then she acts out the same improbable behavior for which they have been mocking her. Contrast this strained attempt at mercy with the description that ends the poem, well after the waitress has died. Here Wiman conjures greater feeling from the lifeless props and scenery of the dead woman’s surroundings than he did from the woman herself:

I picture you one dime-bright dawn grown even brighter now for being gone bustling amid the formica and chrome of that small house we both called home during the spring that was your last. All stories stop: once more you’re lost in something I can merely see: steam spiriting out of black coffee, the scorched pores of toast, a bowl of apple butter like edible soil, bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass, my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.

My wife the psychiatrist distinguishes between extroversion and introversion in precise phenomenological terms. Rather than consider preferences for society or solitude, she notes that extroverts care most about the present moment while introverts care more about the future and the past. (The present, needless to say, exists always and only all around us, whereas the future and the past live chiefly in our minds.) By my wife’s definition Wiman is, as a poet, deeply introverted. And this bias is an asset in poems like “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone,” in which the things of the present weep for the lost past or the as-yet-hoped-for future. Pacing the 180 pages of selected poems in Hammer Is the Prayer, I was often put in mind of the humorous dissension between knight and squire in Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Let other poets—Mary Jo Salter, Kevin Young, Rachel Wetzsteon—join Gunnar Björnstrand for drinks and gossip down in the village tavern. Wiman will be content to recline in chainmail, high on the quiet knoll like Max von Sydow, playing chess alone.

That for Wiman—and for anybody reading Hammer Is the Prayer—it is too late to avoid the scandal of existing in the world is a problem he takes up in poem after poem. The second in the book, “Clearing,” ends with a dream of consolation for the bad luck of being born:

……….standing in a late weave of light and shade a man could suddenly want his life, feel it blaze in him and mean, as for a moment I believed, before I walked on.

But Wiman’s flight from life evinces more than a perverse spirit. With Yeatsian impatience for the noisy set of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen the martyrs call the world, he continues a long ascetic tradition, stitching his prickly lyrics in praise of a realm purer than that of the senses.

So it is particularly moving that in perhaps his best poem, “Voice of One Head,” Wiman offers a rare broad view of modern existence, beginning with the devastating first line, “They were good times, the end times.” Wiman’s native temperament is choleric, as proven elsewhere in his blithely vicious portraits, but when he grants himself some distance from the thorns and thistles of daily life, his love for the things of this world becomes plain:

Even the preacher, like a private winter, whitened, and quietened, then one Sunday instead of speaking burned his sermon so that, he whispered over the ashes after, there might be finally one fire our eyes would see.

And indeed that day did feel different. It seemed there was not one of us not one of us. Peace rumored itself through our screens like a breeze. The sun itself had the shy, pain-shined air of a survivor. Even the ocean, it was said, was open.

That evening when the sky like a brandied mind seemed to dream us at our windows we met each other’s eyes and shook our heads as if we couldn’t believe what we had been given, how beautiful it had been, and indeed still was, slurring such last extravagant streaks of light over the endless city.

Such sentiments of alternating faith and doubt damask more than half the pages in the book. And starting with Every Riven Thing, in which “Voice of One Head” appears, Wiman writes frankly and frequently about God. Like Herbert, who supplies the epigraph for Hammer Is the Prayer, Wiman often sets his devotions in the form of unrequited love poems, painting God as lover and, as reluctant beloved, the author himself, whose inaccessibility to love extends from his own sinful nature:

……….Love’s reprieve moves through me

like a breeze

But antlike ……….existence crawls all over me Lord

In his best moments, though, Wiman remembers that, whatever the subject, his poems are finally neither for God nor for himself. Instead, they are for his readers. They are for us. After all, a good poem is always in part an act of charity, which seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth. This much, it is clear in his finest work, Wiman well knows. And he tests this knowledge nowhere more poignantly than in a monometer blessing titled “Prayer” that—if one did not know better—one might almost take as an ars poetica for our sordid, lonely age:

even now, my prayer

is that a mind blurred

by anxiety or despair

might find here

a trace of peace.