Once in the West: Poems, by Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry magazine and now lecturer in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, offers further evidence that his voice is among the most compelling in contemporary poetry. Like the writings in his prose collection My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, these poems are filled with theological conundrums, unanswered questions, brutal answers to questions never formed, and above all, contradictions. Wiman holds belief and unbelief in a precarious balance that finally tips toward “Love’s reprieve.”

The collection begins with a prayer that readers “blurred / by anxiety / or despair / might find / here / a trace / of peace.” That peace, however, is hard won, and the reader is challenged on every page to untangle the web of binaries that characterize one man’s life and faith struggles. As Wiman so eloquently describes in My Bright Abyss, his perilous fight with serious and ongoing health issues have made him particularly aware of time passing.

One finds no shred of sentimentality or nostalgia in the poems that describe his early life. He is instead blatantly honest as he remembers killing birds with a pellet gun. “I felt nothing, and I will not betray those days,” he writes, “if days are capable of being betrayed, / by pretending a pang in my larval heart.” He describes purposely driving a steamroller over a black snake. He claims “I mean to be mean” in describing the “drycleaned deacons” and the “anusless angels / divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad” at his childhood church. He claims in this poem to “abandon / even the pretense of prayer,” but he ends the poem with the beginning of prayer: “Dear God—.”