If you have ever known someone who cared too much about trivial objects and made others close by endure that fastidiousness, this verse is a tonic:
His little religion
of common things
served him well.
Especially in hell.
The lines come from Once in the West, a 2014 volume of poems by Christian Wiman. He will be one of the two poets reading at Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan on Sunday, October 25th, the day before the Erasmus lecture (The other poet will be Danielle Chapman.)
This specimen of Wiman’s poetry comes from a larger poem, “Little Religion,” which appears near the end of the volume. It plays a trick on the unwary reader. The first three lines identify a habit, one that at first does not seem particularly improper. To make a “little religion / of common things” sounds like the act of a sensitive soul, one who appreciates the presence of God in small and ordinary matters. While the rest of us, too busy to notice, pass over the trinkets on a shelf and the morning ritual of coffee and fruit, he gives them their spiritual due. Indeed, he loves them, uncommonly. That’s the sign of an open heart, and while we may feel a twinge of excessiveness as Wiman identifies his habit, we’re willing to go along with such a quaint kind of worship.
Then comes line four, turning on the word “served.” A religion isn’t supposed to serve the believer. That gets the faith backwards. Something may be wrong here. Then, as soon as we start to apprehend the problem, Wiman strikes with a ferocious judgment, “Especially in hell,” the rhyme underscoring its finality.
It’s a concise moral reversal. Wiman converts a benign sentimental disposition into an outlook that belongs with the damned. We read that last line and return to the previous ones with finer scruples. Of course, we think. Common things should not be uncommonly loved. To make a religion of them is idolatry. And it isn’t just an innocent mistake, either. A vice motivates it—vanity.
Dante is the master of these inversions, and Wiman echoes him several times in the volume. Piercing moments like this pop up again and again, often in descriptions of his own experience. In “Prey,” Wiman sits in a blind before dawn, fingering his rifle and waiting for a target to materialize. Note the changes of rhythm and verse length, along with repeating sounds, as the light approaches.
this chill attentiveness all men are meant to love:
tight in the blind
go out of my hands:
sighting down the sightlines
until the shadows coalesce
into something I can kill.
The first two lines run one foot long, both spondees in the imperative mood. Balancing those gruff commands is the next smooth, long-running line, a hexameter of iambs flowing through reverberating sounds—assonance on “this chill” and a repeated “-en” (“-tent-,” “men,” “meant”).
The following line returns to the curtness mode, all monosyllables with another heavy open vowel echoing on each end (“tight,” “blind”).
The next two-line set (“feeling / feeling”) repeats one sound, but amounts to two different words. We don’t realize that the first is a verb and the second a noun until the following line.
After that, we do have an exact repetition, “be still / be still,” as if Wiman were telling himself to hold fast and be patient. Dawn is near, and he must watch closely as the dark turns to light and the act he has been waiting for can transpire.
He doesn’t say, “until I can see a bird or rabbit [or whatever] and shoot it,” though. He isn’t pursuing his prey, nor is he waiting for it to enter his field of vision. He doesn’t even seem to know what it is yet, exactly. Instead, a metamorphosis has to happen, a “coalescence,” when dark turns into light and a being, “something,” becomes manifest. All the quiet preparations, the dark stillness, his vigil in camouflage, will end with a killing.
Death touches everything in Once in the West. Even a reminiscence of old girlfriends ends with a mortal taste. It’s called “One,” but actually there are four of them.
One raised goats;
one raced around barrels
(bareback to reach me);
one liked it most
on the pole-vaulting mat
(or did she feign that
to reach me?);
chigger-bit, bit me.
Each girl has a singular habit—that’s what Wiman recalls. Naturally, to the teenaged boy, what matters is the “it” of each. Once the list is complete, Wiman proceeds to remember himself.
Tank-topped I rode
of my T-topped Trans-Am
down the drag of that drag town
Only men of a certain age and place know that in a former time the Trans-Am was the car. It sounds to me like the late-70s or early-80s, in a small working-class town (born in 1966, Wiman grew up in West Texas and several poems evoke that rough landscape—“sixteen miles / from Abilene”). But there is no nostalgia here. Wiman cuts the past off in mid-sentence to bring us up to date on the fate of these four women.
. . . I’m told,
one raised four children
on her own; one fiended
wine; one roused
her roustabout boyfriend
from her best friend’s
bed, and one,
who laughing slapping
leapt up nude as dawn,
fossiled in the lakeside,
Four outcomes, none of them easy or enviable. Wiman once more singles out one trait, respectively, as if it were each one’s characteristic adult experience. And the one who gets the most vibrant physical description from the past receives but a one-word end, “died.”
It’s an affecting book, with many more pointed and fervent compositions. We look forward Wiman’s reading.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.