Pain, Language, and the Spiritual: A Review of Christian Wiman’s “Once in the West”

Once in the West: Poems
by Christian Wiman
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 128 p.) 

Nabokov, while discussing Tolstoy in his Lectures on Russian Literature, explains that, “it is rather difficult to separate Tolstoy the preacher from Tolstoy the artist—it is the same deep slow voice, the same robust shoulder pushing up a cloud of visions or a load of ideas. What one would like to do, would be to kick the glorified soapbox from under his sandalled feet and then lock him up in a stone house on a desert island with gallons of ink and reams of paper—far away from the things, ethical and pedagogical, that diverted his attention from observing the way the dark hair curled above Anna’s white neck.” Nabokov goes on to say that, unfortunately, you cannot separate the two in Tolstoy and readers must contend with the frustrating whole. The distinction between the artist and the preacher abides in many authors, none more so than Christian Wiman.

For Wiman, in his riveting new book of poetry, Once in the West, the preacher and poet jostle for space but ultimately cohere into something new and different, and in the process give lie to the idea that you can separate spirituality from poetry (and vice versa). It’s thrilling to watch and read Wiman create through his honed style of sparse visceral poetry and frequent, wild experimentation with words, a pristine edifice of art that is at the same time a document of wrenching, even violent spirituality; a testament of his tortuous dance with God, love, impending doom, and cancer; and of course, at the heart of it all, a struggle with (and of) language, his own personal jail and the only possible keys:

My quiet


of unnameable


over again

I go

in my barrel

of prayer

And yet, words are often empty phrases for Wiman. In perhaps the most impressive and compelling poem of the bunch, The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians, a heartbreaking, hilarious and searing portrait of a jaded church ceremony, Wiman writes a withering insider’s critique of the empty words of preaching that casts a shadow over all his own work, purposefully so:

Here, have a verse for your wife’s death.

Here, have a death for your life’s curse.

But Wiman persists, and if Wiman is a preacherpoet (he would insist on this new word and not some conjunction) then his theology is one of violence. He finds countless ways, metaphors from all sides of existence, to describe the violence of faith and the faith brought about by violence. Whether the physical violence common in his childhood town: shooting accidents, dead snakes, and birds he kills with a pellet gun, or the violence of “finding Jesus” in front of his church as a youth, or the wounds of belief, the scars of cancers, all of these varied forms of violence cohere into the ultimate wound, for Wiman,  the wound God’s presence or nonpresence leaves behind. For Wiman the violence of the whole of life can’t help but be meaningful, the way a scar is meaningful, a meaning only known to this person through the pain involved. For a few years now, this has been Wiman’s central obsession, a central viewpoint, this “holy flu” of God, the antinomy in which you cannot separate what we turn into opposite categories of evil and good or holy and secular:

In pain we learn pain.

Sometimes amid the rancid moonlight and mindlice of my


there gleams a scalpel blade

so clean with meaning

so shaped and sharpened to interstellar blue

that drawing it— in season due—

across my own throat

there comes not blood but an ancient answering


These images, ones that occur throughout his work, account not only for that work’s visceral power but for their draw towards a contemporary religious experience. Wiman’s is the eye that stares at the world, and unlike Milton’s does not “seek to justify the ways of God to man,” but to simply embrace the violent light in everything. His imagery is ferociously one of the duality of life crushed together, inseparable. His is the world of the “paingleaned God”, the “curse of consciousness” with, “attacks of happiness,” stuck in “a city of loss lit in me” living in “the tender interiors of hell” under a “shineless light.” Wiman still “proclaims the Void/and its paradoxical intoxicating joy,” and “rages of faith,” all without flinching. His is less the question of dogma or capital T-Truth, parsing through religious heritage for clues of veracity but rather, given the scars on my body from God, from Christianity that many of us live with, how do we live now, how do we live with this “holy flu?”

For those who feel tired by the dialectics of faith and religion, tired of worrying about the absence or non-absence of God, Wiman still shines as one of our more inventive poets, having his way with language, most similar to another great poet of religion, Gerard Manley Hopkins. His way with the language, experimental but always with a clear and razored purpose captivates and offers the reader a path into the laboratory of language, allowing new and often more immediate modes of communication. Some of the words stem from simple conjunctions, mashed together just as experience is in our minds, other follow the pattern of un______, and my favorite tool, turning nouns into verb, like the brilliant “tigering” or “inking.” I compiled a list of the new words he conjures which in of themselves create a gorgeous linguistic experience:

sungone, laughteryawn, birddogs, aboil, quicklicks, ogred, sundumb, razormusic, shrivelcrippled, winterlude, strangered, milkfeel, lightswirled, timestorm, shinedying, birdbride, paingleaned, otherlit, undawn, anusless, upruptures, undrugged, laughdamning, unscrunching, Godcoddled, stabdazzling, slapcheek, icequiet, blacksleek, painlady, shineless, rivering, unbeing, neverness, unstung, unheavened, bonelight, ungrave, vainlean, tigering, nightshifters, gluefutured, churchcurdled, unthunder, fleshstep, boozeglazes, unstaying, prayerless, rockshriek, strarkrock, unlichened, slaughterhospice, unlonelied, unsurgically, icelace, tightwound, nightmind, moonskin, bloodfine, unfish.

His experimentations hone in and attunes us to the shock of living, the jumble of sensations that rush at him overwhelming regular diction creating a new language to try to catch up with the surge of experience. Wiman seems to inhabit, or at least conjure a world before categories, before the distinctions we use to live harden into habits of thought and language. The immediacy can feel overwhelming, rushing along on nothing more than sound and space, but Wiman is a master of pacing, a wizard of the enjambment both as a musical and semantic tool.

Yet, what separates Wiman apart from other experimenters is the deadly serious purpose he uses his concoctions for. His experimentation is rarely if ever playful, just seeing how words sound, a chemist just trying out different mixtures, but more of a shaman, trying to figure out the exact formulation that will open up people, open up the way to God, the way out of ourselves. In that sense, his inventiveness sounds like a darker Gerard Manley Hopkins, as Wiman creates new words less to capture the beauty of God’s world and more to express and create space for God’s absence, for the wounds of religion.

For all

the pain

passed down

the genes

or latent

in the very grain

of being;

for the lordless


the smear

of spirit

words intuit

and inter;

for all

the nightfall



into me

even now,

my prayer

is that a mind


by anxiety

or despair

might find


a trace

of peace.

This poem, the first in this collection, entitled “Prayer” sets the appropriate tone, as if Wiman invites us into his mind–a barren desert in which every 100 yards or so you can spy something overwhelmingly beautiful which then disappears, leaving only shimmering, shivering traces of “shineless light” behind. Ultimately, this book is a grueling, sometimes painful, but always meaningful meditative movement through the world, reaching out to the everything around us, sensing something reaching back, hoping something will reach back. It’s not an easy read by any standards. At some points I felt the need to douse myself with cute puppy and kitten pictures, but every time a Wiman poem moves through me, I emerge, as if from a freezing bath, to see the world now alight with possibility, attuned to the violence of it all, and the intimacy our wounds create. Of course, Wiman is never far away from hope, which by the end of it all feels earned, genuine, and urgent, one that stays with me even as I uncover my own intimate wounds:

Memory’s mercies

mostly aren’t

but there were

I swear


veined with grace.


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