December 28, 2010


-REVIEW: of Every Riven Thing: A gifted poet struggles powerfully and movingly with questions of salvation, both physical and spiritual. (Elizabeth Lund / December 27, 2010, CS Monitor)

Wiman’s ability to love the unconventional or unlovely is one of the qualities that makes his work so memorable and, at times, endearing. In “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone,” he recalls the tough grace and earthy wisdom of a waitress at the Longhorn Diner. She knew what to do – wordlessly – whenever one of the regulars died and his friends struggled with the transition. The poet, watching the drama unfold, understands her gesture, even as he looks down at his own “plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.”

These poems suggest that the strength and harshness Wiman experienced in Texas shape other experiences – and perhaps all of life. That duality becomes more prominent when the collection shifts to more recent memories of grueling treatments and the grief caused by one’s own mortality.

Wiman, who was raised a Baptist, sees every creature and object as riven (shattered or wrenched apart) and God as “a storm of peace.”

That storm continues throughout the book, because the God of riven things can’t offer much comfort or consolation.

-POEM:: Every Riven Thing (Christian Wiman)
God goes, belonging to every riven thing He's made
Sing his being simply by being
The thing it is:
Stone and tree and sky,
Man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing He's made,
Means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
Trying to will himself into the stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing He's made
There is given one shade
Shaped exactly to the thing itself:
Under the tree a darker tree;
Under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He's made
The things that bring Him near,
Made the mind that makes Him go.
A part of what man knows,
Apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing He's made.

-ESSAY: Gazing into the Abyss (Christian Wiman, Summer 2007,The American Scholar)

I was brought up with the poisonous notion that you had to renounce love of the earth in order to receive the love of God. My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it. And by some miracle I do not find that this experience is crushed or even lessened by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, I will be leaving the earth sooner than I had thought. Quite the contrary, I find life thriving in me, a nd not in an aestheticizing Death-is-the-mother-of-beauty sort of way either, for what extreme grief has given me is the very thing it seemed at first to obliterate: a sense of life beyond the moment, a sense of hope. This is not simply hope for my own life, though I do have that. It is not a hope for heaven or any sort of explainable afterlife, unless by those things one means simply the ghost of wholeness that our inborn sense of brokenness creates and sustains, some ultimate love that our truest temporal ones goad us toward. This I do believe in, and by this I live, in what the apostle Paul called “hope toward God.”

“It is necessary to have had a revelation of reality through joy,” Weil writes, “in order to find reality through suffering.” This is certainly true to my own experience. I was not wrong all those years to believe that suffering is at the very center of our existence, and that there can be no untranquilized life that does not fully confront this fact. The mistake lay in thinking grief the means of confrontation, rather than love. To come to this realization is not to be suddenly “at ease in the world.” I don’t really think it’s possible for humans to be at the same time conscious and comfortable. Though we may be moved by nature to thoughts of grace, though art can tease our minds toward eternity and love’s abundance make us dream a love that does not end, these intuitions come only through the earth, and the earth we know only in passing, and only by passing. I would qualify Weil’s statement somewhat, then, by saying that reality, be it of this world or another, is not something one finds and then retains for good. It must be newly discovered daily, and newly lost.

So now I bow my head and try to pray in the mornings, not because I don’t doubt the reality of what I have experienced, but because I do, and with an intensity that, because to once feel the presence of God is to feel His absence all the more acutely, is actually more anguishing and difficult than any “existential anxiety” I have ever known. I go to church on Sundays, not to dispel this doubt but to expend its energy, because faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world. How charged this one hour of the week is for me, and how I cherish it, though not one whit more than the hours I have with my wife, with friends, or in solitude, trying to learn how to inhabit time so completely that there might be no distinction between life and belief, attention and devotion. And out of all these efforts at faith and love, out of my own inevitable failures at both, I have begun to write poems again. But the language I have now to call on God is not only language, and the wall on which I make my taps and scratches is no longer a cell but this whole prodigal and all too perishable world in which I find myself, very much alive, and not at all alone. As I approach the first anniversary of my diagnosis, as I approach whatever pain is ahead of me, I am trying to get as close to this wall as possible. And I am listening with all I am.

-POEM: Five Houses Down (Christian Wiman June 29, 2009, The New Yorker)
-POEM: Hammer Is the Prayer' (Christian Wiman (Christian Wiman)
-POEM: Gone for the day, she is the day (Christian Wiman , 10/19/10, Christian Century)
-POEM: Lord Is Not a Word (Christian Wiman, May 2010, Atlantic)
-POEM: From a Window (Christian Wiman, July/August 2008, Atlantic)
-POEM: Interior (Christian Wiman, Cortland Review)
-POEM: This Inwardness, This Ice (Christian Wiman, Aug. 20, 2002, Slate)
-POEM: This Mind of Dying (Christian Wiman, Harvard Divinity Bulletin)
-ESSAY: Hive of Nerves: To be alive spiritually is to feel the ultimate anxiety of existence within the trivial anxieties of everyday life (Christian Wiman, Summer 2010, American Scholar)
IT IS A STRANGE THING how sometimes merely to talk honestly of God, even if it is only to articulate our feelings of separation and confusion, can bring peace to our spirits. You thought you were unhappy because this or that was off in your relationship, this or that was wrong in your job, but the reality is that your sadness stemmed from your aversion to, your stalwart avoidance of, God. The other problems may very well be true, and you will have to address them, but what you feel when releasing yourself to speak of the deepest needs of your spirit is the fact that no other needs could be spoken of outside of that context. You cannot work on the structure of your life if the ground of your being is unsure.

THE FIRST STEP in the life of the spirit is learning to let yourself experience those moments when life and time seem at once suspended and concentrated, that paradox of attentive oblivion out of which any sustaining faith grows. These moments may not be—and at first almost certainly will not be—“meditative.” They are more likely to break into your awareness, or into what you thought was awareness (“inbreaking” is the theological term for Christ’s appearance in the world and in our lives—there is no coaxing it, no way to earn it, no way to prepare except to hone your capacity to respond, which is, finally, your capacity to experience life, and death). This is why we cannot separate one part of our existence, or one aspect of our awareness, from another, for there is a seed of peace in the most savage clamor. There is a kind of seeing that, fusing attention and submission, becomes a kind of being, wherein you may burrow into the very chaos that buries you, and even the most binding ties can become a means of release.

Commute (2)

There is a dreamer
all good conductors

know to look for
when the last stop is made

and the train is ticking cool,
some lover, loner, or fool

who has lived so hard
he jerks awake

in the graveyard,
where he sees

coming down the aisle
a beam of light

whose end he is,
and what he thinks are chains

becoming keys . . .

KEYS TO WHAT, though? For I can’t end with that flourish of poetry and privacy. Art, like religious devotion, either adds life or steals it; it is never neutral; either it impels one back toward life or is merely one more means of keeping life at arm’s length. (The subject matter and tone of art have less to do with this than many people think: nothing palls the soul like a forced epiphany, and one can be elated and energized by a freshly articulate despair.) Keys to what? In this poem, the keys are, on one level, to the constraints felt in the earlier section (the miserable commute, the crush of others, the “screech and heat and hate”), which prove to be their own means of release (“what he thought were chains / becoming keys”). On another level, the keys are to the mysteries of death; or, rather, the key is to the blunt, immutable, physical fact of death (the train “graveyard”), which opens, if only for a moment, to reveal a mystery.

And now it’s over. Now the man on the train—like the man who imagined him (me!), like Paul God-struck outside of Damascus (alas, it wasn’t quite like that for me)—must move. Now the revelation either becomes part of his life or is altogether lost to it. Either his actions acquire a deeper purpose, and begin to echo and counterpoint each other, or the moment and the man slip back into unfeeling frenzy, and the screech and heat and hate of his days lock metallically around him again.

Death is the only lens for true transcendence, but, paradoxically, transcendence is possible only when we cease being conscious of our own death. I don’t mean that we are unconscious of our own death, but that we pass through what we think of as consciousness—that “apprehensiveness” I mentioned, that standing-apart-from and taking-hold-of—into something more profound. What you feel in amateur photographs—it’s a large part of the poignancy—is the pressure, or the lack of pressure, actually, of all the reality missing from the picture, which is really just a chopped-off piece of life. An artist, on the other hand, 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. It’s not accurate to say that someone who has learned to see like this has forgotten that there is a lens between himself and life. It’s more that the lens has become so intuitive and fluent that it’s just another, clearer eye.

That dinner party with which I began this essay was a failure of mine—not of nerve, exactly, for nothing I have said in this essay had even crossed my mind at that point. No, it was a failure of consciousness, which is always a spiritual failure. I believe there is a kind of existence in which meditation and communication, epiphanies and busyness, death and life, God and not—all these apparent antinomies are merged and made into one awareness. I am a long way from realizing such perception myself, but I have lifted the lens to my eye—there is a sense in which it must be voluntarily lifted, even if, perhaps especially if, it has been roughly thrust there by circumstance—and am learning.

-ESSAY: Notes on Poetry and Religion: If we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. (Christian Wiman, Winter 2007, Harvard Divinity Bulletin)
i always find it a little strange to meet a poet for whom religion holds no instinctive resonance whatsoever. Most poets are sympathetic to the miraculous in all its forms, though they are also usually quite promiscuous with their sympathies. Still, there are exceptions. Thom Gunn used to say that there wasn't a religious bone in his body, and I can't recall a single instance from his work that uses religious language as a shortcut to the ineffable. (For an absolutely scrupulous use of religious language and imagery by an unbeliever, look at his "In Santa Maria del Popolo.") On the other hand, Gunn's work is virtually devoid of mystery (again, look at "In Santa Maria del Popolo"). It does not contain (or aim for) moments of lyric transcendence; it offers no ontological surprises. This is not necessarily a specifically religious distinction. Larkin, though his work is absolutely rooted in reality, and though it seems quite clear he didn't believe there was anything beyond it, could never completely repress that part of himself that yearned for transcendence, and his work is full of moments in which clarity of vision and spiritual occlusion combine to mysterious lyric effect. In Gunn's work, by contrast, you sense that there was no hunger which the world could not satisfy.

some of the saddest words i know are those keats is reputed to have uttered just before he died: "I feel the terrible want of some faith, something to believe in now. There must be such a book." Part of the pathos here is simply the fear and hunger; it is horrible to watch someone die in a rage of unbelief, and there is every reason to think that, had he lived a normal life, Keats would have come to a different accommodation with death, either with or without religious faith. Another part of the pathos, though, is in the fact that even here, even on his deathbed, Keats can only imagine deliverance as a book, as literature. Keats was a large-souled, warm-hearted, altogether companionable person, but the tragedy of his death was that he did not have a chance to outgrow his youthful devotion to "poetry"—to the idea of it, I mean. You cannot devote your life to an abstraction. Indeed, life shatters all abstractions in one way or another, including words like "faith" or "belief." If God is not in the very fabric of existence for you, if you do not find him (or miss him!) in the details of your daily life, then religion is just one more way to commit spiritual suicide.

-ESSAY: Milton in Guatemala (Christian Wiman, from Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet)
-ESSAY: Grace: Remembering Ruth Lilly. (Christian Wiman, 3/1/10, Poetry Foundation)
-ESSAY: To Let You Pass: Remembering Craig Arnold. (Christian Wiman , 10/01/09, Poetry Foundation)
-ESSAY: In Praise of Rareness: “The more respect you have for poetry, the less of it you will find adequate to your taste and needs.” (Christian Wiman, 1/08/07, Poetry Foundation)
-ESSAY: Canon Fodder: The editor of Poetry magazine writes about poems that should be famous (Christian Wiman, 7/14/06, Poetry Foundation)
-ESSAY: God's Truth Is Life (Christian Wiman, Image)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, after being in prison for a year, still another hard year away from his execution, forging long letters to his friend Eberhard Brege out of his strong faith, his anxiety, his longing for his fiancée, and terror over the nightly bombings: “There are things more important than self-knowledge.” Yes. An artist who believes this is an artist of faith, even if the faith contains no god.

Reading Bonhoeffer makes me realize again how small our points of contact with life can be, perhaps even necessarily are, when our truest self finds its emotional and intellectual expression. With all that is going on around Bonhoeffer, and with all of the people in his life (he wrote letters to many other people and had close relationships with other prisoners), it is only in the letters to Brege that his thought really sparks and finds focus. Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being. I fear sometimes that we are evolving in such a way that the possibilities for these small but intense points of intimacy and expression are not simply vanishing but are becoming no longer felt as necessary pressures. Poetry—its existence within and effect on the culture—is one casualty of this “evolution.”

The two living novelists whose work means most to me are Cormac McCarthy, particularly in Blood Meridian, and Marilynne Robinson. Both of these writers seem to me to have not only the linguistic and metaphorical capacities of great poets, but also genuine visionary feeling. My own predispositions have everything to do with my preference, of course: I believe in visionary feeling and experience, and in the capacity of art to realize those things. I also believe that this is a higher achievement than art that merely concerns itself with the world that is right in front of us. Thus I don’t respond as deeply to a poet like William Carlos Williams as I do to T.S. Eliot, and I much prefer Wallace Stevens (the earlier work) to, say, Elizabeth Bishop. (To read his “Sunday Morning” as it apparently asks to be read, to take its statements about reality and transcendence at face value, is to misread—to under-read—that poem. Its massive organ music and formal grandeur are not simply aiming at transcendence, they are claiming it.) Successful visionary art is a rare thing, and a steady diet of it will leave one not simply blunted to its effects but also craving art that’s deeply attached to this world and nothing else. This latter category includes most of the art in existence (even much art that seems to be religious), and it is from this latter category that most of our aesthetic experience will inevitably come.

The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it seems. There is clearly something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes dangerous intrusions into, and extensions of, reality. But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God—our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us. It follows that any notion of God that is static is not simply sterile but, since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge, blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.”

What is the difference between a cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is merely an articulation of despair? Faith? The cry of a believer, even if it is a cry against God, moves toward God, has its meaning in God, as in the cries of Job. The cry of an unbeliever is the cry of the damned, like Dante’s souls locked in trees that must bleed to speak, their release from pain only further pain. How much of twentieth-century poetry, how much of my own poetry, is the cry of the damned?

-PROFILE: Elegance in Overalls: the American Pastoral of Christian Wiman (Clive James, Financial Times, November 12, 2010)
-PROFILE: Christian Wiman (Image, Artist of the Month: July 2009)
-PROFILE: Featured Poet: Christian Wiman (Poetry Daily)
-INTERVIEW: An Interview with Christian Wiman (Book Slut, March 2009)
-INTERVIEW: An Interview With Poet Christian Wiman (Kevin Nance, 8.07.07, Poets & Writers)
-INTERVIEW: IWhat Poetry Demands: A conversation with Christian Wiman. (Aaron Rench, Books & Culture)
-REVIEW: of "Every Risen Thing: Poems" by Christian Wiman (Troy Jollimore, Chicago Tribune)
-REVIEW: of Every Riven Thing, Swan and Walking Papers (Brian Doyle, Christian Century)
-REVIEW: of AMBITION AND SURVIVAL: Becoming a Poet by Christian Wiman (Ken Tucker, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Ambition and Survival by Christian Wiman (Adam Kirsch, NY Sun)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 28, 2010 5:16 AM
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