Hammer is the Prayer by Christian Wiman, review by Bruce Jacobs
A selection from his half-dozen poetry collections is perhaps the best way to savor the breadth, wit and uncanny ear of Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetryand a professor of literature and theology at Yale. Hammer Is the Prayer ranges from the early, more formal poems of his 1998The Long Home to those of the 2014 Once in the West, where his poems are less inhibited by structure, even playful, despite their more sober themes of loss, grief and metaphysics. Raised a strict West Texas Baptist, Wiman developed an early uncomfortable relationship with the spiritual, and his poems reflect this personal struggle. He quit writing during a spell of mild depression, then fell in love with his wife in his late 30s, before being diagnosed a year later with a rare, deadly blood cancer with no predictable life expectancy despite aggressive treatment. No wonder God continues to rear His head in the later poems.
Frequently rhymed and rife with sonorous language, Wiman's work calls for reading out loud. One can hear echoes of Robert Frost, E.A. Robinson, Richard Wilbur--even the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll. Unafraid of allegory, Wiman unleashes the long dramatic poem "Being Serious," tracking the life and death of a character named Serious, introduced as a fetus, "In the best bed there is,/ Where there is no guilt and no sin,/ No child more inner than this.../ No traffic and no planes;/ No debts, no taxes,/ No phones and no faxes;/ No rockslide of information/ Called the Internet." In the Robinson-like "Five Houses Down," Wiman describes a young boy hanging out at the house of an eccentric tinkerer down the street, with its "ten demented chickens/ and the hell-eyed dog... the wonder-cluttered porch/ with its oilspill plumage.../ beans and weenies from paper plates." Probably reminiscent of the poet's personal medical condition, "Darkcharms" paints a chemotherapy waiting room of patients "alive together, alone together..../ Radiated, palliated, sheened gray like infected meat." With an easy shift of tone, Wiman moves from poems of heavy ecclesiastical meditation to the clever monologue of "The Preacher Addresses the Seminarians," in which the somewhat churlish narrator rants about a church service: "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."
Whether depicting a small-town Texas diner, Chicago's noisy El, a stultifying retirement home or the conflicting emotions of new love in the face of terminal disease, Wiman's poetry is filled with the sounds of wonder, despair, fond memory, and, not infrequently, laughter. Hammer Is the Prayer is a welcome overview of this fine poet's best work.