August 2, 2020
I’ve just learned of Christian Wiman’s ‘All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs,’ published in January, in catching up on recent episodes of the Commonweal podcast. This little poem goes too well with the previous public-facing post for me to forgo a mention. It’s too short a thing, for that matter, not to just copy here in full:
All my friends are finding new beliefs.
This one converts to Catholicism and this one to trees.
In a highly literary and hitherto religiously-indifferent Jew
God whomps on like a genetic generator.
Paleo, Keto, Zone, South Beach, Bourbon.
Exercise regimens so extreme she merges with machine.
One man marries a woman twenty years younger
and twice in one brunch uses the word verdant;
another’s brick-fisted belligerence gentles
into dementia, and one, after a decade of finical feints and teases
like a sandpiper at the edge of the sea,
decides to die.
Priesthoods and beasthoods, sombers and glees,
high-styled renunciations and avocations of dirt,
sobrieties, satieties, pilgrimages to the very bowels of being . . .
All my friends are finding new beliefs
and I am finding it harder and harder to keep track
of the new gods and the new loves,
and the old gods and the old loves,
and the days have daggers, and the mirrors motives,
and the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness,
and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends,
my beautiful, credible friends.
We gather in short order that what ‘beliefs’ of the first line (and the 16th, repeated) refers to isn’t restricted to the very obvious kind of thing, somewhere in a range of mental postures between opinion and allegiance or devotion, that the word serves for in everyday use. What a belief or an act of believing is, the poem’s business seems in part to be to open up to question, to expanding and particularizing. It’s likewise quickly apparent that ‘all my friends’ is something the poem treats, by contrast, in a straightforward, fairly abstracted way. ‘All my friends’ proposes a recognizable type, a class — one I expect it’ll be clear, to anyone who knows me or this blog, that I fall squarely into. The Poetry mag editors discussing the work on their show, back in January with its publication, see themselves in it too. A lot of people would, or should at any rate. Not everybody can, though, that’s clear enough — and important.
Whatever ‘beliefs’ might turn out to be in the picture Wiman’s poem sketches for us, we get the idea we’re being led to think in terms of some course of finding, really, in our contemplation of it, rather more than of conversion. A finding of things, and in some linked sense a losing of things too — things, all sorts, ‘harder and harder to keep track of.’ Things taken to include, perhaps, all these friends, themselves, however trusted, we started out in mind of just a few lines ago and close with in another line or two. Well, it’s a sentiment I guess I get (or am susceptible to).
I’m not saying the poem especially grabs me. What to think of Wiman in general I’m not sure. He’s a large enough presence in places where I lurk, it bears saying, that exposure to him needn’t be through his poetry directly. Needn’t be, and for me isn’t so much. (But I’m no great attender to anybody’s poetry, for good or ill.) That he and I might tune in to some of the same phenomena, social or cultural, and maybe think of it in some like way as phenomena a stretch of history we’re standing in here can be regarded as distinctive for, isn’t necessarily a boost for me nor automatically to his credit in my book. But I am noticing.