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From a Window
Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,
I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man's mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

Hello there. Corinna Laughlin here with the Poem of the Week.  This week, we’re reading Christian Wiman’s “From a Window.” Scott Webster will read the poem, and then I’ll be back with some brief commentary.
Thank you, Scott.
Christian Wiman is quite a young poet, born in west Texas in 1966. He has published several collections of poetry and essays. He edited Poetry magazine for ten years, and now teaches at Yale Divinity School.
Wiman was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, but for many years did not consider himself a believer. But in his late 30s, several transformational experiences happened to him at about the same time—he fell in love, he rediscovered his faith, and he was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer which was thought to be terminal. These experiences changed Wiman, and they changed his writing. His collection Every Riven Thing includes many poems where Wiman wrestles with the big questions of life and death—including the poem Scott read.
At the beginning of the poem, we sense a profound emptiness: “Incurable and unbelieving / In any truth but the truth of grieving.” That word “incurable” has special resonance, given that we know that Wiman was grappling with a terminal diagnosis when he wrote this poem. He seems to have nothing left but grief—to be empty of everything except the sense of loss. But at this moment of deprivation, something happens--something that seems impossible: “I saw a tree inside a tree / rise kaleidoscopically / as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.” He glimpses the soul of the tree—but more; it is as if each leaf of the tree has its own inner life, its own “livelier ghost.” And yet there is total unity: “a single being undefined,” or “countless beings of one mind.”
What is happening here? Is he having a vision? Wiman goes on:  “Of course I knew those leaves were birds”; “the old tree stood / exactly as it had and would.” Notice how the diction changes—from fluid and complex language to short, one-syllable, matter-of-fact words. He knows what we’re going to say: you were imagining things, and insists that he knows exactly what he is seeing: birds in a tree.
So the poet’s feet are firmly on the ground. Nevertheless, something has changed. Because of that glimpse, the tree seems “fuller now”—full of life. And even if it was his mind and imagination that endowed the tree “with some excess / of life,” he recognizes that this is not the whole story. “That life is not the life of men. / And that is where the joy came in.” He has had a deeper insight into the reality before him; he has seen into the soul of things, and “that is where the joy came in.” I’m reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his concept of “inscape,” the inner soul of all created things. As Wiman has said, “Poetry takes you fully into the present, not out of the present.” “What a moment of poetic perception can do is make the present moment of reality absolutely apparent, almost touchable.”
This poem describes a moment—a second or two, probably—of dazzling recognition and transformation. “Incurable and unbelieving” at the beginning of the poem, he ends with joy. And in between those two extremes is this glimpse of the soul, the unity at the heart of created things—a glimpse, we might say, of God.
I want to end this reflection with some words of Christian Wiman, from a 2019 interview, that I think resonate with this poem that moves from emptiness to joy. “Art comes out of emptiness, but also out of joy, superabundance, excess. Part of my maturation as an artist and a person is learning to recognize those moments of joy.”
Two compelling conversations with the poet:



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