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Book Review: 'Once In The West'


And now some poetry to end this hour of our program. Christian Wiman is a Texan, a cancer patient and a Christian, all of which inform his writing. He's just published a book of poems called "Once In The West," and Tess Taylor has this review.

TESS TAYLOR: One of the poems I loved best in Christian Wiman's flinty new book is called "The Preacher Addresses The Seminarians," a poem in which a minister struggling with disillusion advises his younger mentees how to get through the Sundays when they feel a little short on faith. In that poem, even the sanctuary feels far from holy. As Wiman puts it, there are church-curdled hymns, gear grinding tenors and here and there, that rapt, famished look that leaps from person to person, year-to-year like a holy flu.

In fact, Wiman, who now teaches religion at Yale Divinity School, is willing to leave this mortal struggle tantalizingly open. In the book, Wiman, who's also former editor of Poetry Magazine, reflects on things as varied as the pain of his own cancer, his hardscrabble childhood in a Texas of cotton fields, pump jacks, and double-wides.

Amid lonely and painful landscapes, he's mixed terse speech and lyric leaps to record unpredictable dialogues between body and soul.

To be sure, there's a lot of ugly sadness in these poems - cheerless men or, as he says, cancer on a slow boil in the bones of a woman who sleeps five feet from the widescreen. But there's also a raw bareback grabbing at joy.

Even in the grittiest spots, Wiman has got a knack for sounding metaphysical. Like the percolator described in one poem, these verses hold and withhold. They speak to the need - as Wiman puts it - to befriend one's own loneliness, to make of the ache of inwardness something - music, maybe. And they speak to the improbable places we're unaccountably called to love. For what does the chigger-bit and muddy-buttocked body of a former lover teach us about how to live? Can it be tragedy, asks Wiman in one poem. But here, there's such fervent prayer to exist - to know. In that raw hunger, we feel the redemption too.

SIEGEL: The book of poems is called "Once In The West" by Christian Wiman. Tess Taylor had our review. She teaches poetry at Whittier College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tess Taylor