Christian Wiman: Two Poems

February 24, 2012

Christian Wiman reads “Five Houses Down” and “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone.” You can find print versions of both poems below.

Five Houses Down

I loved his ten demented chickens
and the hell-eyed dog, the mailbox
shaped like a huge green gun.
I loved the eyesore opulence
of his five partial cars, the wonder-cluttered porch
with its oilspill plumage, tools
cauled in oil, the dark
clockwork of assembled engines
christened Sweet Baby and benedicted Old Bitch;
and down the steps into the yard the explosion
of mismatched parts and black scraps
amid which, like a bad sapper cloaked
in luck, he would look up stunned,
patting the gut that slopped out of his undershirt
and saying, Son,
you lookin’ to make some scratch?
All afternoon we’d pile the flatbed high
with stacks of Exxon floormats
mysteriously stenciled with his name,
rain-rotted sheetrock or miles
of misfitted pipes, coil after coil
of rusted fencewire that stained for days
every crease of me, rollicking it all
to the dump where, while he called
every ragman and ravened junkdog by name,
he catpicked the avalanche of trash
and fished some always fixable thing
up from the depths. His endless aimless work
was not work, my father said.
His barklike earthquake curses
were not curses, for he could g-ddamn
a slipped wrench and sh-tf-ck a stuck latch,
but one bad word from me
made his whole being
twang like a nail mis-struck. Ain’t no call for that,
Son, no call at all. Slipknot, whatknot,
knot from which no man escapes–
prestoed back to plain old rope;
whipsnake, blacksnake, deep in the wormdirt
worms like the clutch of mud:
I wanted to live forever
five houses down
in the womanless rooms a woman
sometimes seemed to move through, leaving him
twisting a hand-stitched dishtowel
or idly wiping the volcanic dust.
It was heaven to me:
beans and weenies from paper plates,
black-fingered tinkerings on the back stoop
as the sun set, on an upturned fruitcrate
a little jamjar of rye like ancient light,
from which, once, I took a single, secret sip,
my eyes tearing and my throat on fire.

Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone

Brachest, she called it, gentling grease
over blanching yolks with an expertise
hone from three decades of dawns
at the Longhorn Diner in Loraine,
where even the oldest in the men’s booth
swore as if it were scripture truth
they’d never had a breakfast better,
rapping a glass sharply to get her
attention when it went sorrowing
so far into some simple thing–
the jangly door or a crusted pan,
the wall clock’s black, hitchy hands–
that she would startle, blink, then grin
as if discovering them all again.
Who remembers now when one died
the space that he had occupied
went unfilled for a day, then two, three,
until she unceremoniously
plunked plates down in the wrong places
and stared their wronged faces
back to banter she could hardly follow.
Unmarried, childless, homely, “slow,”
she knew coffee cut with chamomile
kept the grocer Paul’s ulcer cool,
yarrow in gravy eased the islands
of lesions in Larry Borwick’s hands,
and when some nightlong nameless urgency
sent him seeking human company
Brother Tom needed hash browns with cheese.
She knew to nod at the litany of cities
the big-rig long-haulers bragged her past,
to laugh when the hunters asked
if she’d pray for them or for the quail
they went laughing off to kill,
and then–envisioning one
rising so fast it seemed the sun
tugged at it–to do exactly that.
Who remembers where they all sat:
crook-backed builders, drought-faced framers,
VF’ers muttering through their wars,
night-shift roughnecks so caked in black
it seemed they made their way back
every morning from the dead.
Who remembers one word they said?
The Longhorn Diner’s long torn down,
the gin and feedlots gone, the town
itself now nothing but a name
at which some bored boy has taken aim,
every letter light-pierced and partial.
Sister, Aunt Sissy, Bera Thrailkill,
I picture you one dime-bright dawn
grown even brighter now for being gone
bustling amid the formica and chrome
of that small house we both called home
during the spring that was your last.
All stories stop: once more you’re lost
in something I can merely see:
stream spiriting out of black coffee,
the scorched pores of toast, a bowl
of apple butter like edible soil,
bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass,
my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.

Watch the full conversation between Bill Moyers and Christian Wiman.

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  • Sandraskipwith

    thank god for this

  • DSheff

    Five Houses Down is one of my favorites from this powerful book.

  • Kathleen Muniz

    My comments are about the selections read during the interview with Bill.  First, I wanted to gert out pen and paper after I listened to the wonderous magic of Christian’s words.  Creating, the act of creation, certainly brings us closer to our own creation and demise.  Life is a lesson on death and dying is the journey we all take.  But what struck me the most are the similarities of the thoughts conjured by “Every Riven Thing” to the eastern philosophy of god:  the creator and the creation are one and god exists in all things, not just in the mind of man.  Thank you for this inspiring interview, Bill.  Thank you Chirstian for sharing your most profound inner thoughts.  I, too cannot fathom infinity. 

  • Krisjanp

    Thank you for the engrossing interview with Christian Wiman. Facilitating this poignant demonstration of the power of the poet to be fueled by love, suffering, and art, the interviewer helped us appreciate the depth of the thought-provoking insights. Additionally, seeing Mr. Moyer’s revealing expression of complete engagement was delightful, particularly when Mr. Wiman mentioned returning to his west Texas roots.

  • 1amongus4now

    simple powerful words …take me home

  • Roger

    Thanks to Bill Moyers once again for his compassion and humanity. And thanks for introducing me to Christian Wiman, a beautiful soul and a great poet. Christian gave me spiritual insight that I needed to hear.

  • Lagunatbobbi

    Thank you Bill and Christian. You brought a sense of peace and comfort to my sometime wandering, fretful mind this evening

  • Anonymous

    I just watched your show. In March of 1993 I was diagnosed with leukemia. I n Sept 1993 I had a bone marrow transparent. Your story was inspiring. I related to it and an even wrote my one and only poem. I am now 71 and leukemia free.  This is my website.

    This is my poem

    My Song


    Soft wings spread

    Find peace and free
    my soul.


    Mountains lofty, blue
    and white

    Fill my feelings and
    my sight.


    Fellow feathered
    friends share your sky

    To become an eagle
    with spirits high.


    Clouds of angels
    bestow me your lift

    And carry me in your


    Winding rivers guide
    my voyage

    To places of dreams
    and hope.


    Emerald fields let me
    down gently

    Onto the soft grass
    of tranquility.


    Satin wings with
    compassionate spirit

    Spread peace and hope
    upon this earth.


    Bob Farmer, March 24, 1993


    I wrote this a few weeks after being diagnosed with leukemia


  • Evelyn in Oregon

    With great emotion, I’m watching Christian Wiman on your show right now.   So wonderful. 

  • Coroboree

    Sorry Bill, but I think Christian Wiman is trying  desperately to convince himself that his existence has some objective significance.

    He, like are all of us, is a manifestation of energy being formed into a temporary configuration of matter, which eventually gets formed anew.

    Just because he can observe himself during his existence is not enough to prove that he is significant.

    Where will his books of poetry be in a million years?

    Who will be around to remember that he ever was, then?

  • Gerouxsalem

    Christian Wiman is a poet among poets. I rejoice that the muse of poetry settled upon him and even more that he and the great love of his life found and recognized each other. His gift of insight is dazzling, simple, profound, beautiful. Wow!

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Good any time…. ill or well!

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Maybe the Cosmos hates humanity.What an irony if Christian Wiman’s cancer were caused
    by a vaccination.
    Sometimes I feel like Everything is out to get the Good People.             by GLH

  • Baptox


  • Baptox

    Thanks to both Bill Moyers and Christian Wiman for proving that you can’t keep a good man down,either.

  • Fran

    I felt the same way. It was an amazing exchange and now I will follow this poet and his journey.

  • samuel son

    with few words, he conjures a whole village