rev. of The Long Home by Christian Wiman

Issue #79
Fall 1999

The Long Home  
Poems by Christian Wiman. Story Line Press, $12.95 paper. Reviewed by H. L. Hix.

Poets’ voices seldom emerge fully formed: first books more often air promise than plenitude, recklessness than resonance. But Christian Wiman’s
The Long Home, winner of the 1998 Nicholas Roerich Prize, speaks with mature authority.

The Long Home starts with a sonnet, “Revenant,” that introduces the book’s muse, an ancestor of the narrator, one who so loves “the fevered air, the green delirium / in the leaves” and the “storm cloud glut with color like a plum” that she stands in the fields during storms expecting to be struck by lightning, her face “upturned to feel the burn that never came: / that furious insight and the end of pain.” But if the storm never speaks
to her, it does speak
through her: “spirits spoke through her clearest words, / her sudden eloquent confusion, her trapped eyes.”

That prophetic figure in “Revenant” returns as or prefigures Josie, the narrator of the spellbinding title poem in which the book culminates. Obeying the principle implicit in James Merrill’s rhetorical question “Who needs the full story of any life?,” Wiman’s “The Long Home” recounts the crucial events from Josie’s rich and dramatic life, beginning with her family’s departure from Carolina to a Canaan that (as in the biblical exodus) was really “Papa’s dream,” and that proved to be Texas, continuing through her sister-in-law’s suicide, her own multiple miscarriages, and her husband’s death, and ending in a final visit with her grandson back to the farm where she had raised her one son. Wiman develops plot and character as a novel might, but with the concision and repletion of verse.

In between those two poems, Wiman treats the reader to a cluster of lyrics as inviting as a blackberry bramble buzzing in summer with drunk insects, as full of sweetness and scars. A poem like “One Good Eye” exemplifies Wiman’s mastery. Its pretext makes it seem least likely to succeed. As Louise Glück’s
The Wild Iris must make plausible poems from an implausible pretext (flowers in the garden speaking), so “One Good Eye” must make a memorable and original poem from a trite pretext (boy forced to endure the hugs of an ugly aunt). It achieves its unlikely success through the purity and beauty of its music. The poems begins with this melodious sentence: “Lost in the lush flesh / of my crannied aunt, / I felt her smell / of glycerine, rosewater / and long enclosure / enclosing me, / and held my breath / until she’d clucked / and muttered me / to my reluctant / unmuttering uncle / within whose huge / and pudgy palm / my own small-boned hand / was gravely taken, / shaken, and released.” And ends full circle: “Then it was time: / my uncle blundering / above me, gasping / tobacco and last / enticements; / while my aunt, / bleary, tears bright / in her one good eye, / fussed and wished / the day was longer, / kissed and sloshed / herself around me, / a long last hold / from which I held / myself back, /
enduring each / hot, wet breath, each / laborious beat / of her heart, thinking / it would never end.” The sonorous repetition of sounds and the selection of perfect words (“crannied,” “clucked,” “sloshed”) typify the musicality that pervades the book.

No one collection commits a poet unalterably to a style or a set of preoccupations, but
The Long Home already establishes Christian Wiman as a legitimate heir to Frost. The kinship appears unmistakably in a poem like “Clearing,” which reanimates the best of Frost’s meditative inner-quest poems, like “Directive” and “After Apple-Picking.” But the connection is neither so isolated nor so simple. Wiman is no impersonator among the masses mimicking Frost’s mannerisms, but a voice possessed of the same rare virtues: independence from poetic fashion, an inviting surface transparency over turbulent depths, shared thematic concerns (home and family, for instance), and an ability to make regional speech representative and individual lives universal. Such exactitude as
The Long Home embodies, syllable to syllable and line to line, makes Wiman a medium, allows spirits to speak through him, their cadences haunting and their stories true.

H. L. Hix’s translation of Eugenijus Ali?sanka’s City of Ash
will be published by Northwestern University Press in 2000. Among his other books are a poetry collection, Perfect Hell,
and a book of criticism, Understanding W. S. Merwin.