Saturday, August 03, 2013

Beyond Belief in My Bright Abyss by Poet Christian Wiman

Reflection on My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

Wiman during interview with Bill Moyers. See
Christian Wiman's slender but rich book My Bright Abyss is the author's attempt to complete a poem he started years ago:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

He tells us that he'd hoped to distill his theology into a single rhymed stanza.  Now it takes him 182 pages of prose to reach some tentative conclusions.  But why should we pay attention to what a poet believes?   Neither theologian nor clergyman, Christian Wiman writes with authority, stemming both from his years in extreme pain at the edge of death, and from a poet's disciplined habit of weighing alternatives to every word or image he chooses, to find just the one that hits the truth.  (read my article about some of his poems here)

He anchors many of his theological meditations to the world of things with some strong anecdotes.  At age 12, he alarmed and awed the congregation at his small Texas town's fundamentalist church when he fled the altar call crying; he does not understand what happened to him.  He tells us how his unexamined belief system (my words, not his) melted when he went away to college, and how he transferred "that entire searching intensity onto literature" (34).  He pays tribute to his Grandmother, with her intuitive and deep appreciation for the world of her senses, and to her mentally challenged sister, his "Aunt Sissy," waitress in a roadside cafĂ© (36), and wonders at the difference between their final moments in hospital.  There's a period of travel and short-lived love affairs encapsulated in a poem set in a Prague apartment, where a falcon alights outside the window (44). 

Most of the book draws on Wiman's overarching story of the turnaround in his own life:  poet, editor of Poetry magazine, he found the love of his life, rediscovered faith with her (they step into a church on a whim, 68), and, shortly after, was diagnosed with a rare incurable cancer.  A remarkable set of pages were written years apart: He writes that the "still small voice" of God in Isaiah is both "more powerful" than whirlwinds and earthquakes, but also "not altogether apart from them" (146), concluding that one may need to experience "terror and pain" to hear that voice. After a small space on the paper, he writes of how years have passed since he wrote the previous sentence, during which he has experienced great pain, but also the joy of twin daughters.  People wonder how he could "bring children into a situation so precarious," and he understands the question. "But then we see them offering each other flowers they've picked from the backyard ... or stopping amid their madcap play to kiss each other," and he asks, "How could we not have had them?  How could they not be?   How could such life, such love, ever have remained latent and dormant within us" (147)?

In a way, the whole book is an argument that Wiman has with himself over theology.  He sometimes thinks, "I'm simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there's something worth buying" (117).  About dogma, he writes that it provides...
the ropes, clips, and toes spikes whereby one descends into the abyss [of knowledge of God].  But I am also a poet, and I feel the falseness -- or no, not even that, a certain inaccuracy and slippage, as if the equipment were worn and inadequate -- at every step.  (117)
As often happens with Wiman, he takes back the word "falseness" to find the more accurate word and image. Elsewhere, the whole passage is contradicted by a diarist who gives up on finding modern substitutes for "annoying" words such as "humility" and "grace," because "these are word-vessels ... saturated with content through ages of thought and use...." (Anna Kamienska, 141).  For another example, no sooner has Wiman developed the appealing idea,"Silence is the language of faith. Action -- be it church or charity, politics or poetry -- is the translation," weak in the ways of all translations, than he qualifies his own analogy, reminding himself that silence loses its power without those actions (107).  Similarly, faith that isn't held in common, i.e., with a church community, is only ego (127).  He has no truck with vague new age spirituality, either, quoting George Lindbeck: "You can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general" (141).

Wiman's central tenet comes to us in opposites.  When he makes his striking observation that "pain islands you" (148), he writes with the authority of one whose bones have cracked from cancer growing inside the marrow.  With the same authority, he turns that around, telling us that pain actually joins us to each other and to God through Christ's suffering at the moment that he cried out My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?   He is a Christian for this, not for the hope of resurrection or the truth of Christianity compared to other religions, or because of his childhood in the church:
  • I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ's passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.  [Not suggesting that "ministering angels" will comfort you, but] that Christ's suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ's compassion makes extreme compassion -- to the point of death, even -- possible. (155)
Wiman's faith and literary tastes meet where "insight is still sight" (119), between opposites of mere matter and abstract ideas.  Among poets at these poles are William Carlos Williams, whose verse focuses on things, and Robert Lowell "who had such a tremendous imagination for language but so little for other people" (46).  In between, Wiman gives us Richard Wilbur's "Hamlen Brook": drinking from a stream, the speaker pauses to notice the life under the surface, shadows deeper, the reflections on the surface, and finally, the satisfaction of the drink that comes with "an ache / Nothing can satisfy" (120).  Wiman reprints this to illustrate how "some singular aspect of reality... seems to acquire a life in excess of itself" giving us a feeling "more complicated than joy," because that "excess" keeps going while the perception of the thing is instantly lost in time: "to name is to praise and lose in one instant.  So many ways of saying God" (119). 

He writes admiringly of the "devotional poets of death" among the modernists, especially Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, and Camus, and dismisses the postmodernists who value "nothing more than anything else" (50).  But while he once believed that "concentration on death concentrates life" and "Death is the mother of beauty," his ideas changed when death stopped being an abstraction (57-58). 

But he doesn't go for the conventional idea of afterlife, either, for a beautifully simple reason: "Death is here to teach us something, or to make us fit for something" (105).  It has to be final.  He makes a strong case that life is change, and the popular idea of "life" eternal, self intact, but without choices, without suffering, without anything left to complete -- is a contradiction in terms.   

Two chapters struck me strongly, and I'll take another blog post or two just to deal with those, "Hive of Nerves" and "God is Not Beyond."

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