By Christian Wiman.
Copper Canyon Press, $14.
Poetry editor Wiman has not only survived the envious, giddy attention that came when his mag received a $100 million gift in 2002, he's also sparked a discernible pulse within the quarterly's once-moribund pages. While doing all of this, he's also assembled his second collection of poems, Hard Night. This ambitious book masquerades as a study in modesty, or maybe it's vice versa. Simultaneously cautious and deeply assured, technically adroit and suspicious of technique, the work seems at times primarily a space for Wiman to wrestle with his particular understanding of poetry. While the collection manifests Wiman's skill and commitment, too often the writing is imperfectly realized, straitjacketed by an overly dutiful sense to explore the possibilities poetry offers.
At his best, as in the long poem "The Ice Storm," Wiman writes rich, evocative poetry. A set of rhymed vignettes, "The Ice Storm" portrays the inner and outer lives of an elderly couple, while managing to name-check such disparate figures as William Gladstone, Mahler and the golfer Bobby Jones. Lines like these display the poem's winning combination of formal grace and plainspoken observation: "She takes the knob in her hand, / sees, inside its shine, / white tablecloths, crystal cut fine / as jewels, / and, and...and a man / with American shoulders and vowels, / that face / so open it wasn't, like the ocean."
Such a passage simultaneously offers the simple pleasure of the "jewels / vowels" rhyme and a summation of Wiman's work: The crystal reflected in the mundane doorknob is a kind of jewelry, the man in his intimacy and remoteness is like a landscape.
But even such lovely moments remain haunted by the sense that they cannot bear the weight of significance assigned to them. Similarly, the book's final, sweeping poem, "Being Serious," with its evocations and allusions to poetic forebears like Zbigniew Herbert, Larkin, Berryman and Beckett, never quite escapes the weight of the tradition it invokes. "Technique! Technique! Technique!" the eponymous Serious exclaims. While this could be a motto for the book as a whole, in the end it seems as much a cry of desperation as a credo.—John Beer