All poetry is comparison. One thing resembles another—a squirrel is an itch, for example—and the poet notes the relation by metaphor, repetition, sound. Sometimes the comparison is stated, sometimes it is implied, and sometimes it is made through characters. Bad poems can be bad for a number of reasons, but banal or inscrutable comparisons are common flaws. In the one case, the comparison is so obvious as to bore; in the other, it makes no sense because it is merely private or mangled by shoddy thinking.
In his first collection of selected poems, Hammer Is the Prayer, Christian Wiman, the former editor of Poetry, compares things by accumulation. Many of his poems begin in media res, with a response to a question or a thought about a previous event, and progress by observation. Sometimes the speaker addresses a "you," sometimes not. While a handful of poems take on the voice of a character, many are straight lyrics, written in a voice that alternates between description (of an apocalyptic Texas landscape, for example, or downtown Chicago) and intonation ("I am a ghost of all I don't remember, / a grown man standing where a child once stood") with an occasional touch of playfulness.
His style, in other words, or his primary style in the volume, is very much the fashion. But a couple of things set him apart. The first is the precision and clarity of his language. It's easy to throw adjectives and nouns together to create an image that seems evocative (or provocative) but fails to evoke much at all. This is what makes surrealistic poetry both fun and frustrating to read. After the cheap thrill of contrasting images (as in Tristan Tzara's "Vegetable Swallows," which has lines like "the nimble stags storms cloud over / rain falls under the scissors of / the dark hairdresser-furiously / swimming under the clashing arpeggios"), a hunger sets in for something substantial.
Wiman never takes such shortcuts. He risks saying what he means. The "fevered air" and "green delirium" of leaves "whipped and quickened" by a thunderstorm mirror a late relative's "sudden eloquent confusion." One poem opens:
It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,
to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air-stagger toward you
In another, which touches on his experience as a cancer patient that eventually led him back to the Christian faith, he writes:
Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
In "Keynote," the speaker feels in a dream, "the Sisyphean satisfaction of a landscape / adequate to loss."
Wiman, as the above selections show, also has an excellent ear and turns to various kinds of repetition to mostly great effect. Reversals of structure (chiasmus) and inversion (anastrophe) are used frequently—maybe too frequently—but not heavy handedly. His mix of internal and end rhyme gives his poems a quickness and coherence, and his religious verse, like Donne's, is both immediate and meditative. "When the time's toxins / have seeped into every cell," Wiman writes in one poem,
somehow a seed
sprouts the instant
I acknowledge it:
little weedy hardy would-be
There are, unfortunately, a handful of otherwise taut poems that are marred, in my view, by a sudden over-articulation. In a wonderful poem set in Prague, for example, the speaker sees a falcon on a windowsill as a woman walks out of the bath behind him, naked, "dripping, as a bloom // of blood" forms on her cheek:
Wish for something, you said.
A shiver pricked your spine.
The falcon turned its head
and locked its eyes on mine,
What a shame that these beautiful lines are followed by this final stanza:
and for a long moment I'm still in
I wished and wished and wished
the moment would not end.
And just like that it vanished.
The feeling suddenly seems trumped up. Is he really still "in" the moment—especially if "it" along with the falcon vanished the instant he wished it lasted? The repetition of "wished" communicates a kind of straining, but not the right kind.
In "One Time," his confession that "I do not know how to come closer to God / except by standing where a world is ending / for one man" makes it seem like he's trying too hard to make the important statement, especially when it is followed by "and for an hour I have listened / to the breathing of the woman I love beyond / my ability to love." The use of repetition for mimetic or rhetorical effect falls flat in a few others. A pumpjack bows to the ground "Again, again, again" in one poem. In another, leaves are "Spinning and spinning without sound." "I come back to the world. I come back / to the world," he writes in a poem on the Canyon de Chelly, "and would speak of it plainly, / with only so much artifice as words / themselves require." Alas, not always.
Still, Hammer Is the Prayer is full of far more successes than partial successes. The volume also shows Wiman's skill at narrative and translation. He includes the wonderful long poem "Being Serious" (the title alludes to Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) from Hard Night, and a selection of his Osip Mandelstam translations. Few poets today can write lines like this: "I have no illusion / some fusion / of force and form / will save me, / bewilderment / of bonelight / ungrave me."