Blood in the Tea, essay on “The Limit” by Christian Wiman

My initial reaction to “The Limit,” a short story by Christian Wiman in a larger book entitled “Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet” was completely visceral.

I do not think I have ever had 12 pages feel so heavy in terms of emotional content, the way it ebbs and flows, literally taking me to the limit, putting me in a position where I had to put the book down, set it aside and weep.

So entirely, all encompassing is “The Limit” that I went and wrote a casual blog after reading it. I’m not the review stuff type of person. I write critical analysis all the time. And with the sheer volume of texts, poems, plays, and fiction pieces I have been responsible to read over the last two years, rare is the piece that consumes me to the point where I need to express my reaction to it solely for my own peace of mind.

Now that I have read “The Limit” again and again, I believe I was right in my initial surmise of the overall piece. It is a piece of rarity, almost Shakespearian, the way it builds epic tragedy with the laconic telling of violent episode after violent episode.

His words make my head dizzy and compels me to think about his work in relation to my own. In fact, the sheer craft of storytelling that went into “The Limit” almost makes me want to give up writing completely. How can anyone be so succinct in their writing? Twelve pages, edited to perfection.

He had me at “the light like steeping tea / shadows sliding out of things” (46).

The light

Like steeping tea


Sliding out of things

One of the things I struggle with in my own short fiction is tendering some reasonable balance between lyricism and story.

But with Wiman’s piece there seems to be a perfect fulcrum where we as the reader teeter back and forth with the events and the imagery. It is a serious game though, and we get that from the opening line, “I was fifteen when my best friend John shot his father in the face” (46).

With Wiman it is teeter-totter roulette and he is playing for keeps.

“The Limit” is in every way a masterpiece of poem and prose, fiction and memoir. It balances perfectly, nothing is unbelievable and nothing is believable.

Were they really hunting doves that day? Or was that particular bird chosen by Wiman as a mark of his genius and attention to craft?

If so, is he saying that he is allowed poetic, creative symbolism in memoir? Or if not does “The Limit” invite us to believe we are allowed poetic, creative symbolism in reality?

If Wiman gives the answer in “The Limit” I have not found it yet and the clues I have found confuse me even more. “My family’s history acquired a kind of show-and-tell exoticism, little trinkets of authenticity brought back from the real world” (48) seems to solve the question of the doves, indeed, Wiman seems to say with this sentence, there is beautiful synchronicity and symbolism in the real world.

But the next sentence “That it wasn’t a real world, not yet, that it had no more reality for me than what I read in books, didn’t seem to matter too much at the time” (49) leaves me once again searching for the answer, not only on the doves, but on various other instances in the book like when Dr. Miller, after being shot in the face, drives them all to the hospital and asks Wiman, “You didn’t fire that shot, did you” (55)?

I love how Wiman reflects instantly with the twenty year gap, “Could it be, in life, as well as in writing, that our deepest regrets will not be for our lies, but for the truths we should not have told” (55)?

The setting for the characters in this story hovers in the dawn and in the dusk. They are rendered to shadows creeping in a big back yard whose stories are not “so much told as breathed, a sort of steady pressure in the air” (47). Wiman’s life is full of ghosts, maybe he even feels as though he is a ghost, writing fervently to even exist ephemerally.

The light

Like steeping tea

The biggest clue to “The Limit” is in that first bit of poetry. Wiman introduces us to a tragic event that is the hub of the wheel of a violent life and yet it happens during a time of day that is Wiman’s “favorite time in West Texas, the light like steeping tea, shadows sliding out of things” (46) suggests that Wiman romanticizes his violent past, uses it to create something more real than what can be real.

There are moments even when we see that Wiman is not necessarily just a victim of the violence. Wiman shows us his own crass nature when he describes the end of his and John’s friendship by saying, “in a final assertion of physical superiority he’d ended my lingering relationship with my high-school girlfriend by impregnating her” (54).

That it was not her according to Wiman, but John that ended their relationship is incredibly telling in terms of who Wiman is as a person and what John means to him, and what the past was, what they shared, that violent intercession that dropped bits of “obliterated face” (55) into the steeping Texas tea. Wiman’s life is defined by violence and his reaction to it almost serene. “Violence is latent within us,” Wiman surmises Freud-like towards the very end of the piece, “[…] pain may be it’s own reprieve” (57).


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  1. Order out of Chaos « La La Luv U
  2. A “Poetics” Annotation « La La Luv U

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