Once in the West

Once in the West

by Christian Wiman


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One of The New York Times' 10 Favorite Poetry Books of 2014

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist

Winner of the 2015 Philosophical Society of Texas Award of Merit in Poetry

A searing new collection from one of our country's most important poets

Memories mercies
mostly aren't

but there were
I swear
days veined with grace

—from "Memory's Mercies"

Once in the West, Christian Wiman's fourth collection, is as intense and intimate as poetry gets—from the "suffering of primal silence" that it plumbs to the "rockshriek of joy" that it achieves and enables. Readers of Wiman's earlier books will recognize the sharp characterizations and humor—"From her I learned the earthworm's exemplary open-mindedness, / its engine of discriminate shit"—as well as his particular brand of reverent rage: "Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone / is that a prayer that's every instant answered?" But there is something new here, too: moving love poems to his wife, tender glimpses of his children, and, amid the onslaughts of illness and fear and failures, "a trace / of peace."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374227012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/09/2014
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christian Wiman is the author of seven books, including a memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (FSG, 2013); Every Riven Thing (FSG, 2010), winner of the Ambassador Book Award in poetry; and Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. From 2003 to 2013, he was the editor of Poetry magazine. He currently teaches religion and literature at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School. He lives in Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt

Once in the West

By Christian Wiman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Christian Wiman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71354-6



    Mad sand
    and the sungone noon

    stinging me
    back to me

    my mind fields
    my hands shields


    Goof the noon
    no one knows

    back of the house
    back of the shed

    back of God
    with his everair

    and iron

    sing a little nonce

    for the curse

    of consciousness
    coming on you

    like a rash:
    little boy

    little mountains

    from the trash
    to stare down

    the angry

    in the oil eyes
    of the horny toad.

    Goof the noon
    gone too soon

    like the house
    and shed,

    like the boy
    in whom you sit,

    your back
    to the back

    of the old

    where a few flowers

    out of all the years
    of shit.


    If the courts
    are asphalt

    and the nets

    if it's a herculean

    to fuck unseen
    at the Sonic;

    if a slick

    from a child's yelp

    amid a roar
    of beer

    and such ugly

    as Clack and Skoot,
    Messrs. Butt

    and Derryberry
    chalk their scores

    and hawk
    their spit

    all afternoon
    in the laughteryawn

    of the bull-
    smelling stalls;

    if, as the sky
    grains again

    and the ground's
    in every mouth,

    someone homeward

    a pick-up

    with birddogs
    and someone skyward

    Durn ...

    tell me:

    can it be


    One answer's
    on a slow boil
    in the bones
    of a woman
    who sleeps
    five feet
    from the wide-screen
    of a woman
    her granddaughter,

    It's Christmas
    in Abilene,
    baked shanks
    and blackeyes
    the double-wide,
    kerosene splashing
    over an actor
    acting terrified
    of death.

    Enter the pug.
    It sniffs
    the rinsed
    vomit tub,
    halfheartedly humps
    Uncle Brunson's
    boot, spills in
    and out of Ora's
    happily distracted
    hands, then
    awake the raving
    raging woman
    he was bought
    from the mall
    to mollify.

    Enter the woman
    into the woman
    at the pug
    over her,
    and the smell
    of something


    At sixteen,
    sixteen miles

    from Abilene

    to be exact),

    on being not
    this, not that,

    I drove
    a steamroller

    smack-dab over
    a fat black snake.

    Up surged a cheer
    from men

    so cheerless

    were grunts, squints,
    whisker twitches

    it would take
    a lunatic acuity

    to see.
    I saw

    the fat black snake
    smashed flat

    as the asphalt

    under all ten tons
    of me,

    flat as the landscape
    I could see

    no end of,
    flat as the affect

    of distant killing

    it would take a native
    to know was love.


    A soul

    from the body's

    needs a body
    of loss:

    is that, then,
    what we were

    in that back-

    seat, sweat-
    soaked, skin-

    habited heaven
    of days

    when rapture
    was pure

    and sinning



    One raised goats;
    one raced around barrels
    (bareback to teach me);

    one liked it most
    at midnight
    on the pole-vaulting mat

    (or did she feign that
    to reach me?);
    one, muddy-buttocked,

    chigger-bit, bit me.
    Tank-topped I rode
    the rock-n-roll

    of my T-topped Trans-Am
    down the drag
    of that drag town

    in which, 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,

    her backside
    fossiled in the lakeside,


    I had a dream of Elks,
    antlerless but arousable all the same,

    before whom I proclaimed the Void
    and its paradoxical intoxicating joy,

    infinities of fields our very natures
    commanded us to cross,

    the Sisyphean satisfaction of a landscape
    adequate to loss —

    and as I spoke inspired
    farther and farther afield from my notes

    I saw James Wesson whiten
    to intact ash

    big-boned Joe Sloane shrivelcrippled
    tight as tumbleweed

    I saw wren-souled Mary Flynn die again
    in Buzz's eyes

    I saw
    I saw

    like a huge claw
    time tear

    through the iron
    armory and the baseball fields

    the slush-puppy stand
    the little pier at Towle Park Pond

    until I stood strangered
    before the living staring Godfearing men

    who knew me when.


        Mamie Thrailkill, 1894–1990

    A hammer a father's forever behind
    or a Dust Bowl woodpecker high in pines?

    Blue purl and milkfeel of a child taking shape,
    or child-sized tumor taking over?

    She sits in the timestorm time's turned into,
    shinedying in her easy chair.

    Love is there:

    handmade houseshoes and a cairn of yarn;
    a Bible thumbed to nearly nothing;

    the percolator's way of holding and withholding
    every inmost stare and state.

    And hate:

    purple-kerchiefed, stupid-toothed, a Stuckey's Aunt Jemima
    stalls her grin above a red cut of melon;

    on the sideboard a lean late husband
    hatchets through a half-dozen grainy days.

    Shy birdbride, fourteen, all night you hide
    under the bed divining sighs, each



    Sweet Christ! how much itch and last sass
    must a middle-aged man with one mean mule

    and a patch of pissed-on dirt endure?
    Not much, not much.

    Is nothing pure?
    Is it the soul's treason to think so?

    Is it nature's to wink so
    on the birdhouse hinges and the chain-links

    until the brain breaks
    upon a paingleaned God

    too meaningful
    to mean?

    I just went to bed, she said
    of her son's sons' deaths just days apart

    from slapcheek,
    from brain fever,

    from the virus
    of us.

    And art?

    When the rocking stops.
    A sense of being henceforth always after.

    A hungry angry mule crying its dumb ton
    of rust.


    say less

    than silence.
    In a dawn

    lost to all
    but me,

    Silas, beyond

    the hay bale

    no one now

    has the heart
    to kill;

    and touching

    my head

    so we can be alive

    as together

    we are dead.


    Too many elegies elevating sadness
    to a kind of sad religion:

    one wants in the end just once to befriend
    one's own loneliness,

    to make of the ache of inwardness —

        music maybe,

    or even just believing in it,
    and summer,

    and the long room alone
    where the child

    chances on a bee
    banging against the glass

    like an attack of happiness.


For a couple of winters during my childhood my family went on skiing
trips with another family from the small town where we lived. The youngest
child, Jeff, was a daredevil, and he and I spent our days together and
became close. He was seven or so, I was five or six years older. Several
years later, after I had left town, Jeff climbed to the top of the raftered
coliseum, perhaps to survey the scene below, perhaps to play a joke. In any
event he slipped and fell two hundred feet to his death.

    And ever after rafters would speak to me
    of falling:

    a child's voice calling
    How 'bout a bit a birdseed Birdman?

    while the chairlift chugs and jolts us up the snow
    of New Mexico

    so that downward soundward
    we might fly.

    Seven years old.

    When heaven fears its secrets will be told
    it tells them to the least and the lost of us:

    Headfirst and howling (so they said)
    something that will not stop echoing

    in my head, he slips
    from the topmost most-banned beam of Snyder Coliseum


    to the lightswirled world that even in my heart
    is hard.

    There are eyes, there are hands
    there are lives so otherlit

    so freed of the need to mean
    that to elegize is obscene.

    Trickster, little broken

    with your contempt for years
    and your disdain for gravity

    your highwire haywire feats
    your pockets packed with sweets




    faster through the snow
    faster down the untracked


    diamond demanding someone
    let there be someone

        winged enough

    to catch you.


    The peeled-grape feel of sun before sun:

    light like a live thing
    creeping out of cracks and nooks:

    don't move
    don't breathe:

    this chill attentiveness all men are meant to love:
    tight in the blind


    go out of my hands:
    sighting down the sightlines

    be still
    be still

    until the shadows coalesce
    into something I can kill.


    We were all an oily rabble,
    some spiritless unguent oozing out of us

    more surely than the shine
    on our possum noggins.

    We were all a cuddle of lean fleas,
    bovine sundumb Sunday zombies

    chewing chewing our little cuds of God.
    Jesus, even the horizon's woozy,

    and the pumpjacks, galactically black,
    fucking the earth; space

    so supremely empty
    you could hear

    an extinction's
    last, baffled



    We lived in the long intolerable called God.
    We seemed happy.

    I don't mean content I mean heroin happy,
    donkey dentures,

    I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering
    from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws

    I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels
    divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture

    I mean
    to be mean.

    Dear Lord forgive the love I have
    for you and your fervent servants.

    I have so long sojourned Lord
    among the mild ironies and tolerable gods

    that what comes first to mind
    when I'm of a mind to witness

    is muriatic acid
    eating through the veins

    of one whose pains were so great
    she wanted only out, Lord, out.

    She too worshipped you.
    She too popped her little pill of soul.

    Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone
    is that a prayer that's every instant answered?

    I remember one Wednesday witness told of a time
    his smack-freaked friends lashed him

    to the back of a Brahman bull that bucked and shook
    until like great bleeding wings the man's collarbones

    exploded out of his skin.
    Long pause.

    "It was then," the man said, "right then ..."
    Yes. And how long before that man-

    began his ruinous and (one would guess) Holy Spirit–less affair?

    At what point did this poem abandon
    even the pretense of prayer?

    Imagine a man alive in the long intolerable time
    made of nothing but rut and rot,

    a wormward gaze
    even to his days' sudden heavens.

    There is the suffering existence answers:
    it carves from cheeks and choices the faces

    we in fact are;
    and there is the suffering of primal silence,

    which seeps and drifts like a long fog
    that when it lifts

    leaves nothing
    but the same poor sod.

    Dear God —



    At the rest home
    rest is
    limbs and times
    spasm and
    for a time
    then the little up-
    ruptures re-
    as of dust
    deep in the unhappened

    Already not yet
    and a line
    of squeegied
    rots and totters,
    tilts and mutters
    outside the dining
    hall. Antbites
    of irritation
    crawl all over
    the attendant's
    will she scream

    and fling
    them off?
    Will the earth
    open and God
    this debacle
    of animal,
    these last
    of existence
    less to survival
    than simply
    to less?

    The doors open
    as they always
    do, the heart
    as it often
    and into a dim
    limp the loved
    and the unloved,
    some hungry,
    some not,
    but each
    with a place
    they know
    today, each
    of a mind
    to stay.

    What voice is this cut in the air
    as though a wound itself had speech

    Give her small hands
    Give her dark hair

    Give her a wound no word can reach


    I got a hitch
    in my git-along

    she says,
    having got along
    six decades
    and change
    without a father,
    who got along
    passably well
    with his irascible will
    and rotgut quiet
    one night in '52,
    while her face
    flashed in her knife
    and the boys
    groaned at okra,
    he shot his wife
    and himself

    I got a hitch,
    she says,
    who said
    nary a word
    nearly a year
    like a withered
    a napkin
    nearly skin
    by the time
    they coaxed
    her open,

    in my git-along,
    a little wrong
    to right the rift
    right through
    the grain
    of things,
    like the rat
    an undrugged
    whacks at
    God, like
    the little kiss
    and gift
    a son
    instead of
    like the kitchen
    wall clock
    that's ever after
    all clocks
    saying only

    I got a hitch
    in my git-along —

    a cactus song
    for the twin
    out of sleep
    to wonder
    and coo
    at Grandma,
    and grinning
    to beat all
    who lifts
    with her hitch
    and draws
    from her drawl
    an almost English

    Here's something!
    Once I sat
    at the zoo
    when your daddy
    was just
    a little tick
    of a thing
    like you
    and sad
    so sad I was
    and do you know
    what the good Lord
    saw fit to give?

    A pigeon
    upon my head.


    A city of loss lit in me.

    Childhood: all the good
    Godcoddled children

    chiming past
    the valley of the shadow:

    old pews, old views
    of the cotton fields

    north, south,
    east, west,

    sifting down like dust

    when —

        stabdazzling darkness,

        towers of glare,
        blacksleek streets,

        everywhere an iron

        and a sense
        of high finish

        hived with space
        like a face

        by a loneliness

        it never came
        to know.

    I came to know it.


    Memory's mercies
    mostly aren't

    but there were
    I swear
    veined with grace

    like a lucky
    electrically over

    whatever water
    there was —

    ten skips
    in the telling:

    all the day's aches

    and a late sun

    even sleeping Leroy
        into his body
    to smile
    at some spirit-lit

    skimming the real

    so belongingly
    no longing

        clung to it

    when it plunged

    bright as a firefly
    into nowhere,

    I swear.


    It takes a real cow
    to bite beyond
    the prickly pear's
    sharp spokes.

    It takes a brain
    of stone
    or canny man
    to coax

    from thorn and husk
    sustaining fruit.
    It takes hunger,
    it takes thirst

    to taste
    all the tender
    of hell —

    upon which,
    it is said,
    even the Demon


    Painlady leaning into pain as every day she does:
    this time it's mine, this time my spine's

    rivering new forms of formlessness:
    lava crawling creaturely through my jaw,

    one shoulder shot through with shineless light
    only the unliving could see by.

    Where am I?

    What happened to time (to mind)
    that I should turn from the safe dangers of memory

    to this burn of unbeing,
    this mad metastasis of Now?

    Painlady lay upon my tongue the morphine moon,
    let your opiate hope

    bloom once more in my brain
    that I might be blessedly less

    alive —

    not howling homeward like that hound
    (I hear him now)
    hellfired tongue to gut

    by some country Satan
    who'd seasoned meat

    with shattered glass.


Excerpted from Once in the West by Christian Wiman. Copyright © 2014 Christian Wiman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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