Good news! Yesterday saw the release of Christian Wiman’s new book of poetry, Once in the West. While my copy is still in mail, I couldn’t resist sharing the opening portion of what Dwight Garner in the NY Times has already called a “major performance” and “near-masterpiece”, one that Wiman was kind enough to preview for us when he was here in 2013, “The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians”. It’s biting and uncomfortable but also extremely funny, a veritable catalog of churchy tropes, both inane and indicting. Given its tone, the ending, which you’ll have to buy the book to read, may surprise you.
I tell you it’s a bitch existence some Sundays
and it’s no good pretending you don’t have to pretend,
don’t have to hitch up those gluefutured nags Hope and Help
and whip the sorry chariot of yourself
toward whatever Hell your Heaven is on days like these.
I tell you it takes some hunger heaven itself won’t slake
to be so twitchingly intent on the pretty organist’s pedaling,
so lizardly alert to the curvelessness of her choir robe.
Here it comes, brothers and sisters, the confession of sins,
hominy hominy, dipstick doxology, one more churchcurdled hymn
we don’t so much sing as haunt: grounded altos, gear-grinding tenors,
three score and ten gently bewildered men lip-synching along.
You’re up, Pastor. Bring on the unthunder. Some trickle-piss tangent
to reality. Some bit of the Gospel grueling out of you.
I tell you sometimes mercy means nothing
but release from this homiletic hologram, a little fleshstep
sideways, as it were, setting passion on autopilot (as if it weren’t!)
to gaze out in peace at your peaceless parishioners:
boozeglazes and facelifts, bad mortgages, bored marriages,
making a kind of masonry in faces at once specific and generic,
and here and there that rapt famished look that leaps
from person to person, year to year, like a holy flu.
Anyone interested in Wiman would do well to read Matthew Sitman’s excellent new essay for The Deep Dish, “Finding the Words for Faith”, in which he dubs CW “America’s most important Christian writer.”