- Eloquent Confusion:Christian Wiman's Long Home
Delivered in two long, running sentences, the first poem of Christian Wiman's debut collection launches the reader into the world of a nineteenth-century romantic:
She loved the fevered air, the green deliriumin the leaves as a late wind whipped and quickened—a storm cloud glut with color like a plum.Nothing could keep her from the fields then,from waiting braced alone in the breaking heatwhile lightning flared and disappeared around her,thunder rattling the windows. I rememberthe stories I heard my relatives repeatof how spirits spoke through her clearest words,her sudden eloquent confusion, trapped eyes,the storms she loved because they were not hers:her white face under the unburdening skiesupturned to feel the burn that never came:that furious insight and the end of pain.1
Unadulterated emotion runs rampant here; "She loved… Nothing could keep her… the storms she loved. … furious insight… pain." The natural world reflects the subject's dramatic feelings: winds whip and quicken, heat breaks, lightning flares, thunder rattles. Color bursts from the page in saturated greens and plum. The air one breathes in this poem is "fevered," "delirious," "glutted." In the best of romantic traditions, Wiman's liminary poem even invokes a supernatural world. Spirits speak through the words of this woman, whose white face, trapped eyes, furious insights betray tremendous psychic pressure. In fact, this revenant, in the family ghost story that Wiman remembers and passes on at the beginning of his first book, speaks with "eloquent confusion."
If the romanticism of "Revenant" returns in subsequent poems, it is disguised, or existentially complicated. Indeed, Wiman has had a complicated [End Page 250] career since his first work Long Home won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize in 1998. He has written three more acclaimed collections of poetry as well as one book in prose about a religious conversion that occurred between his second and third books of poems. He was the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003–2013 and now teaches at the Yale Divinity School. This poet has gone far and ranged wide. However, the conjunction of opposing forces within the words of the "Revenant" (eloquence is clear, whereas confusion is incoherent) is at the core of his oeuvre. Long Home is the starting point for a long, complex trajectory. Wiman's experience and practice of paradox bears exploration in its seminal forms.
Long Home is divided into two sections. The first is made up of lyrics drawing on what seems to be personal experience. The second, one long monologue called "Long Home," recounts the odyssey of a family in West Texas. Within Part One of this book, "Hearing Loss," "What I Know," and "Living Room" are varied and particularly evocative explorations of how poetry interacts with the limits and possibilities of the human condition. Each poem will relate those contrasting extremes differently. The titles of these three meditative poems announce the complexity of Wiman's worldview and words at the outset.
Depending on whether it is understood as a compound noun or as a verb with a direct object, the title "Hearing Loss" means two opposite things: not being able to hear on the one hand, and hearing something, "loss," on the other. Accordingly, this poem is about a deaf woman and what she and the reader hear instead of sounds.
Only the most obvious questionswere asked her, how she felt,or if she'd slept, and even these words,before they reached her, wavered free of meaningsas if a wind were in them. Friends and familycame close and called to heras they would call down a well, peeringpeering into some darkness their own altered voicesmight rise out of. In time,even the echoes faded, untilany moment's simple music—a bird singing, her grandchildren laughing—faltered before her, tremblingsomewhere in the very air she breathed.She felt sounds she was hardly conscious ofbefore: the deep-freezer's door hummed [End Page 251] when touched, and the dry heartbeatof an old clock ticked lightly into her fingers.Her son...