My grandmother’s glass cabin, perched high in the Sandia Mountain Range of New Mexico, is a place I would visit each summer of my childhood without fail. This is my first time back since I left home for college, and with it, left childhood. Everything seems, although familiar, smaller as well — the drive up the mountain shorter, the cabin diminished, the ponds shallower and grasses shorter even than they were in my late adolescence.
New Mexico represents a spiritual home to me much more than the barren Sonoran desert where I spent the remaining eleven months of each formative year. As such, I wanted to bring my wife here more than anywhere. And I brought my adult self, too, as a bemused observer, along with a paperback copy of Christian Wiman’s collection of essays entitled Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.
This place is dense with evocative glimpses of earlier selves. I have been rifling through internal snapshots like an old-time flip book, hoping the rapid succession of annual impressions might create a trajectory of motion that I could identify as “my development.”
“There are keener griefs than God. / They come quietly, and in plain daylight, / Leaving us with nothing, and the means to feel it.”
-Christian Wiman, “This Mind of Dying”
Though this year’s edition of Poetry International is packed with poetic delights, the portfolio section on Christian Wiman knocked me out. Though the name sounded familiar, I recalled little of Wiman, except I suspected that by admitting this publicly, I would be admitting a hefty dose of ignorance. (My instincts here were right; turns out he’s the editor of Poetry. I even quoted one of his essays in a post I wrote last year.)
But the upside of ignorance is an untainted first impression, and here is mine: that I found a poet unabashedly touching upon God with neither irony nor simple-mindedness, sounding out complex and compact verse with intoxicating musicality. Here, I thought, is a modern Gerard Manley Hopkins completely unafraid to strike his note.
Here also, I thought, in fact, are the kind of poems I might one day write myself if I knew I did not have much more time to live. With this strange thought fresh in mind, I Googled Wiman, mostly to see if I could pre-order his third book, Every Riven Thing. Instead I discovered an article in The American Scholar, wherein he describes how falling in love and, soon after, being diagnosed with a terminal disease led him back to the fierce new kind of poetry now resting in my lap.
“The self that writes may need to be a delicate and protected creature, but the self that submits to magazines ought to be as tough as a rhino’s butt.”
-Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry
Organization is one thing. Discipline is another. The discipline of getting up early before work to write poems has saved my life. However, if I want anyone other than my lovely wife to encounter these poems, I have to submit them to journals and contests. It is far more enticing to just write another poem. Or goof off on Facebook. Or stick needles in my eyes. In short, I’m still working on the sufficient thickness of rhino hide, strategically located and cultivated, to make this a dispassionate process.