Born Before the Wind; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part Two

If you missed it, here’s part one:…o-parts-part-one/

Wiman has been dealing with a disease that has made mortality a reality for him (whereas at this moment, my mortality is merely theoretical).

But here is what he says about reality: “If reality is, as this entire book has been arguing, perceived truly only when the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception…, and if poetry has any reach into ultimate reality at all, it is the abstract element of music in which that connection is most deeply felt.”

Well, that’s one of those statements he puts out there as if there can be no argument. But music is music, and poetry is music with, of course, words, and all their layers and shiftiness, their sniffs of time past and echoes and currents, their pictures and arrows — their meaning, let’s just make it plain. Words have meaning, and poetry is made of words, chosen carefully for music and silence, for form and function, for all that’s conjured, for double-entendre and some je ne sais quoi. That’s why it’s so great. And “reality” is, of course, no different: layered, shifty, circumspect, changeable.

Wiman writes about “…bringing eternity into one’s immediate consciousness rather than, as so many poets have tried to do, as so many people try to do in one way or another, projecting their consciousness into eternity.”

Eternity. Art and faith — why is an old atheist like me interested in this stuff? Is it an anthropologist’s curiosity about a strange subculture? Do I long for some force that can act on my behalf in the face of the random clatter of life unfolding? Of course. Do I fear the loneliness of oblivion? Nah, I think when I’m dead I’m dead. Do I fear having come and gone with no impact? Well, I’ll be dead — so what do I care?

Maybe it’s that human impulse to believe in something larger than ourselves, and I’m too human to ignore that impulse, yet too hard-headed to indulge it. So I read about and contemplate it. And maybe that in itself is a kind of faith? Or an appreciation, anyway, of the process of thinking, a practice of consideration of the mysteries of this life thing.

Wiman says this: “…there is a persistent mystery at the center of our existence, which art both derives from and sustains.” And you know, I can’t really argue with that.

You want it darker; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part One

I strut around thinking I know stuff, so it’s good for me to encounter minds that reveal to me readily that I don’t know shite. Marilynne Robinson does this reliably. Anne Carson. Doug Glover. Sometimes you. But lately it’s been Christian Wiman giving me my comeuppance. Wiman’s engagement with poetry is gut-level and reaching, such that I feel like I’m a kindergartner struggling to learn my ABCs.

His latest book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, is difficult in many ways. I am not always following his thought process as he grapples with art, the spirit, faith, death, and poetry. There is a bitterness to it as he confronts his own mortality in the midst of all that he loves. As the book goes on, he does begin making grand statements that I can’t always get behind, statements that seem arguable but he neither expands nor explains, and often leave me thinking “Hey, but wait a minute.” But he offers up some incredible poems, his own and others’, and deeply interesting ideas.

Here is something he says that I’m still pondering. He’s referencing A. E. Stallings’s poem “Momentary,” but he says this: “…it’s not simply that the hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be otherthan what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end.”

I think the “hunger” he is talking about is the human need for answers, for explanations, for meaning, for something other than randomness at work in the world, for something at work larger than our meager efforts. The art is the reaching, the inquiry. If art — or the poem — attempts to be an answer, it can only be an echo of our own noisy voices. Is that what he’s saying?

Here’s another interesting thing: He considers whether art is a redemptive activity, and bristles at the idea. “I think it’s dangerous to think of art — or anything, actually — as a personallyredemptive activity…For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it….” He writes: “You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point — whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss — you will have no efforts left to make.”

I had never thought of making art in quite this way — I don’t look to it as something to do something for me, but rather as something to do with myself and my energies, proclivities. If I get anything external from it, accolade or opportunity, it’s chance and luck. Grace? If grace is that inner peace that comes from a transient sense of oneness with all things, then a walk in the woods can do that for me. A poem is me nattering in the dark, my yelp as I bark my shins on life.

More on my encounter with this book next week.

Postcards from the Edge; or, On Reading Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

I have been making my way slowly through Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Slowly because it is tough stuff, both the — what should I call it? theology? the study of his own faith/God/self-in-God?, and the intensity of it: a dying man sending dispatches from the edge.

Diagnosed with a rare and fitful disease, Wiman has been dragging himself through years of treatment sometimes as ravaging as the disease, approaching death only to have death pull away, only to catch up to it again, like some long drag race in the desert. Throughout much of it he has been trying to make sense of his call toward God or Christ or some ineffable -ness that is not captured by the wan word “religion,” with its weight of institutions and hierarchies.

I am interested in ideas of god, in the faith that seems something innate in our species, though long though a nonbeliever myself. Is it this lack of a religious upbringing that makes me struggle so to understand what he’s saying?

The writing itself also requires me to untangle sentences, to consider asides, to parse the meanings of words. He does have a tendency toward long sentences that take some effort to track. He also speaks at times in koans. For example, he used the word “contingency” several times, including in one gnomic statement early on that God is contingency. Which made me have to look up the word, as I’ve only used it with regard to plans-made-just-in-case, also known as Plan B. Which made me think of W.C. Fields — isn’t he the one who took up religion on his deathbed just to hedge his bets? But it turns out I had misunderstood contingency as meaning the plan itself, when in fact it’s the stuff that transpires such that Plan B is called for.

Contingency is a possible future event or circumstance, unpredictable, chancy, possibly fortuitous. It’s also, philosophically, “the absence of necessity; the fact of being so, without having to be so.” (That’s Random House Dictionary’s wording.)

Oh. Well, no wonder I’m confused. But of course I’m confused.

There’s nothing like the fact of one’s death to change perspective, I imagine, particularly from how one thought one would feel in the face of one’s death. The brief segments that make up the book were written over the course of years, at it has been years since he was diagnosed, years of treatment, years of the disease in abeyance, years of it breathing down his neck, years of a soul’s dark night, God as dark knight, as nothing like that at all. There is no arguing with a dying man, so if wants to speak confusingly about his wrestling with ideas and needs, saying the unsayable in the abstruse, well, there we are. Contingency is from a late Latin word meaning befall. Indeed.

He also has many interesting things about art and writing. And these I cleave to. About some poets and poems, he says they are: “…making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness’ and ramify beyond its own dimensions…What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals–and it does feel like revelation–a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.”

He talks about the best art finding “multiple dimensions in a single perception.”

Regarding the amateur and the artist, he says this about photography: What the amateur offers, often poignantly, is “a chopped-off piece of life. An artist…makes you feel just how much missing life is contained within a given image: it is as if the image is surrounded with, enlivened and even created by, the invisible, the unknowable, the absent.”

But the final chapters and segments become more and more achingly, confoundingly, terrifyingly beautiful. I think of Rilke’s terrifying angels. In these passages Wiman is transcendant.

Here are some excerpts:

“It is not some meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.”

“To fling yourself into failure; to soar into the sadness by which you’ve lived; to die with neither defiance nor submission, but in some higher fusion of the two; to walk lost at the last into the arms of emptiness, crying the miracles of God.”

And this: “Word after word ekes out of me as if I were in some bare, wasted place scraping myself forward, as if there were a ‘forward,’ as if I did not end up every time on this same circle circumscribing all I do not know.”

I was enamored of his words about writing and poetry, and these beautiful sentences of his experience. I felt in some ways I have failed him in my obtuseness with regard to his meditations on “belief.” He has been working so hard to communicate his sense of God.

It wasn’t until I came to the very end of the book, ironically, that I began to begin to begin to understand what he was saying. And it was by way of a poem. That old unsaid saying it best, the great expanse beyond the punctuation opening out:
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:


More noise on silence

From the brilliant Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival:

“Enduring silence is no small part of poetry’s discipline, acquiring the patience to wait, knowing when not to write.”

This is an awfully tempting excuse to use on all my many not-writing days, but I am cognizant of the difference between lazy-not-writing and deepening-in-silence-not-writing, although rarely strong enough to drag myself out of the first to fling myself into the second. Sometimes I just need to watch Project Runway.

“Poetry arises out of absence, a deep internal sense of wrongness, out of a mind that feels itself to be in some way cracked. An original poem is a descent into and experience of this insufficiency.”

I’m not sure about this one. I’m not sure absence and wrongness are always the igniting sparks of writing. Sometimes it’s the over fullness of something and, if not a sense of rightness, then a need to weigh-out-loud.


Chat me up

The authors I’m reading right now are ruining me for regular society. Reading the thoughtful, erudite, fascinating and beautiful prose of Christian Wiman in his Ambition and Survival and Rebecca Solnit in her Field Guide to Getting Lost is making it almost impossible for me to engage with the lesser minds of everyday life, especially my own. Wiman, from his essay “The Limit”: “[My father] knew — he taught me — love’s necessary severities, how it will work itself into, even be most intense within, forms of such austere and circumscribed dimensions that, to the uninitiated, it might not seem like love at all.”

From Solnit: “We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing. I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation in its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance….For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond.”

No offense, friends, beloveds, casual acquaintances, strangers on the street, oh my own self, but you’ve got to up your game.

On another matter, my work is being featured all week on Sundress Publications’ Wardrobe blog: