On Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman

Spencer Reece

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New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan, 2020. 112 pages. $24.00.

In the story of the ten lepers, Jesus heals ten lepers, but only one second-class Samaritan turns around to say thank you. The fact that he is a Samaritan is important; he is the lowest of the low in that world. The other nine run on with their lives. In thinking of this story, I can’t help but think of the speaker of Survival Is a Style, Christian Wiman’s fifth stellar collection of poems, as that humbled Samaritan leper that turns around to say thank you. I’ve been in the world fifty-six years, an Episcopal priest for eight, this gratitude ratio sounds about right. Life’s like that.

Wiman told David Yezzi in an interview in The New Criterion in 2019 that his obsessions were:

What might the word “faith” mean to a modern person? What does it mean to speak in appropriate language of God or godlessness? What does suffering mean, and what does suffering have to do with God?

Behind that response is the story of a man who has been beaten down nearly to death, a man who has been laid low by bone marrow transplants, and now has risen again, to write. As he wrote himself:

When I was young, I wanted only to imprint one poem on eternity, which is to say: to serve the muse I would one day master. In my early forties, in love and near death, I had the image of hanging on a huge hook, like some creature whose resistance only worsened its plight.

The man who tapped the words onto the keyboard nearly died, and that hones a conscious like little else. Wiman is the survivor of a rare blood cancer. The cancer remains in remission but may return with all its rapacious fatality at any moment.

How can survival be a style? Wiman loves the sounds of words—alliteration comes to him like it did to Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins—so the first layer of varnish to this title is sibilance.  The title could be an ad campaign for Gap. Beneath the sound is the meaning which feels stark and coy. Survival is a style? A style is how a poet presents their sound, how the troubadours introduce themselves at court. The collection’s title yokes Wiman’s directness and aloofness together; the phrase is declarative and whimsical, hard-won and smirk-worthy, provocative and requires a double-take. Wiman makes a definitive sound of those who have decided to stay. As he writes in “Rest Home”:

limp the loved
and the unloved,
some hungry,
some not,
but each
with a place
they know
today, each
of a mind
to stay.

The title poem of the collection stretches two stanzas like a drum-skin:

There are no knives
On the man so thin the wind
Whips his cargo pants around him like a dance
To which his bones aspire,

No flares, no smoke, no unmetaphorical fire
when the woman in the camouflage jog bra
Jogs by whistling all the while.
Survival is a style.

The first sentence covers most of the poem, bleeding into the second as the speaker describes a man and a woman, a kind of Adam and Eve. Wiman describes their clothing: one in cargo pants and the other in a camouflage jog bra, as if both vaguely exist in some combat diorama. The man and woman both wear “survival gear.” Survival as a style isn’t metaphorical here. The poem marries that which is temporal and moves fast and an instinct to be stationary, humorously actualized in a “jog bra.” A harness that seeks to contain what is soft and fluid, perhaps this image bares relevance to thoughts of survival as a style? Yin and yang, the two stanzas circle us like juggler’s balls. For a poem that oddly opens, “There are no knives,” we do not expect it to end “survival is a style.” Surprise is the main spring of every poem: no surprise, no poem. Why are there no knives? Why would there be knives in the first place? For self-protection? Or the man described with “no flares, no smoke, no unmetaphorical fire.” Why that clunky awkward “unmetaphorical”? Perhaps the tricks of metaphor such as irony and smoke of artifice have no place in the poetic scene Wiman establishes. He wants a starker sense of verse which makes the description of the clothing all the more ridiculous. Bared humanity we all recognize will survive.

From this scene the book swerves and springs off in various directions where we decidedly end in a lingering feeling of gratitude: for a youth learning to drive who sees briefly in the distance a “white-bloused girl wading cotton north of Dunn” and then a later scene of the speaker with his family petting a strange dwarfed cow:

We gave her ¾ if you can believe it ¾ grapes
Left over from one daughter’s lunch,
And when they were gone, and we were almost,
Her moo blued the air like a sorrow
So absurd it left nothing left of us
But laughter.

The book mines unexplainable joy at being alive; derived from the heady cool world of Yale, the poems bump up against our author’s heart. In “Fifty,” an age the author has now passed, Wiman writes:

I have two daughters and one cloud, an old oak
and a great love, elected solitude, given sun.
There never was a now this golden one.

The poet dwells in the world with a life in the present “now.” The poem, “After A Lecture with My Love,” closes:

To speak a thing one can’t conceive.
To live in the instant before the instant is.
To feel infinities going dark for this one light along your thigh.

These grammatical fragments track the experience of human oddity: standing on a spinning planet being in love and alive. The speaker and the author feel quite close to one another but not in a way that demands biographical detail. In Wiman’s first collection of poems, The Long Home, published in 1997 when Wiman was thirty-one, he wrote presciently of a man standing in front of the reader, beginning a style characterized by survival:

A man could suddenly want his life
Feel it blaze in him and mean,
As for a moment I believed
Before I walked on.

This early poem predicts concerns of a man who wants life burned into him with a moment of belief. Little did Wiman know what was coming. Here, in Wiman’s latest collection, where survival is a style, the biography of one’s maker somehow does not compete with the verse: gratitude changes the atmosphere doesn’t it? This is not Russian roulette. This is running the race.

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