In his new anthology, Joy: 100 Poems, the writer Christian Wiman takes readers through the ostensible ordinariness of life and reveals the extraordinary. “We ate, and talked, and went to bed, / And slept. It was a miracle,” Donald Hall writes in “Summer Kitchen.” Through a luminous array of poetry and prose, Wiman captures joy in contemporary contexts. These works span from the 20th century to the present day, and as a result, the real, the specific, and the familiar shine through: “She’s slicing ripe white peaches / into the Tony the Tiger bowl,” Sarah Lindsay describes in “Small Moth.”
Wiman’s anthology is a reminder that if the news can bring people closer to the suffering of others, literature can bring people closer to the intensities of those experiences. This collection is a study of one of these intensities, namely joy, which Wiman knows is a close bedfellow with sorrow. As he explains in his deeply informed and beautiful introduction, the word joy alone can make writers and readers apprehensive: How can one speak of that feeling at a moment when it seems that anger, confusion, and pain are everywhere?
Wiman’s background makes him an apt guide. Born in West Texas in a devout Southern Baptist community, he emerged from a violent heritage. His grandfather walked into the kitchen, shot his wife in front of their kids, then lay down beside her before killing himself. Wiman also witnessed his best friend shoot his father in the face (as described in his excellent piece “The Limit” from his collection of essays Ambition and Survival). And Wiman himself has a strained and protracted relationship with his father, as a result of his father’s affair and his parents’ difficult divorce.