Friday, April 12, 2013

TO-READ l The Black and White of Christian Wiman's Bright Abyss

"I'd passed right by the church every day for three years on my way to the train and work downtown, but I couldn't even have told you what denomination it was. I wasn't tuned into churches. Or to Christianity." 

To write about belief is more or less taboo, these days. Indeed, to call one's self a Christian is akin to telling people that you don't vote or recycle and hunt fawn for sport. It is, in other words, audacious. The same thought kept occurring to me as I read My Bright Abyss, a meditation, by Christian Wiman, poet and editor of Poetry magazine: how does death affect one's writing. Not so much their prose or even productivity, but what they write about; their subject. 

Wiman, who, in 2005, was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, was not "tuned into churches" or a sense of a higher power at the time. It makes sense to connect the dots and guess right that the diagnosis catalyzed his search for God (or "spirituality," as we tend equivocally to call that which breathes air into but scrims the surface of experience). But Wiman wasn't quite spurred to action in the way that, say, Eben Alexander came to find proof of heaven. Wiman, as evidenced in poems neatly placed throughout the book like candles in a room, both to illuminate and reinforce the dark and doubt they bring to light, had sought to give his faith a name, or, rather, sought to let it come to terms in books and poems that he wrote for years before he turned, or settled on the name of God. Wiman's inclusion and close reading of poetry throughout My Bright Abyss makes clear that his transition wasn't smooth, abrupt, or even necessarily observed, much less defined. The poems he "responded deeply" to before and after seeing in them breadcrumbs of his hunger for relationship with God retain their force and use as poems, as the world retains its force and drudgery of email, work, and disappointments. Wiman doesn't flip or feel for any mystic on and off switch to make God appear. As in reading, in these pages he is seeking more than anything to argue and to notice where he's "poured the best parts of [himself]" rather than cling to a "fixed, mental product" of what God is or who one ought to be to ask. Training his eye to see those parts as indications of desire not to accolade and shut himself apart from life in solitude, but enter in communion with a sense those parts are needed is as much a part of Wiman's struggle as his treatment; his close reading of God. "Faith," he writes, "is change." And as if to enact his faith in writing, change is everywhere apparent. 

In fact, my favorite quality of My Bright Abyss is how selflessly it changes course from one thought to another, as if Wiman is reviewing his own spiritual journey from the vantage of an outsider; how hesitant, or unconscious, of coming to conclusions or asserting for the sake of building one thought on another just to form and fall apart some ego-plastered thesis like the Tower of Babel, which makes its brief epiphanies that much more believable, before Wiman retracts and retraces his steps. Which isn't to say the author lacks conviction. Quite the opposite. The author is so fearless as to contradict himself with angst, to spotlight his humanity. Doubt serves as a constant introduction to what Wiman calls a "radical openness," oscillating between "the void of God and the love of God." Perhaps that's what I meant about how death impacts one's writing: weakness begets power by another name. 

Wiman, as a poet, is perfectly aware of the power in naming that which otherwise eludes us. The consequence, for good or ill, of claiming a religious identity; the use, as Martin Buber said,   of acting like one's faith is real. Just as the comedian Louis C.K.'s show Louie reframes the hard truths of reality his comedy is based on, Wiman points out that religion and popular conceptions of God as a benevolent and omnipresent white male in the clouds are "not made of these moments" he describes as something either "essential about the way we know God or merely" examples of  "[his] own weakness of mind," but, in the case of religion, "means of honoring" and making them routine. Much like the way a poet practices his art by showing up and sitting down to write. 

Poetry is devalued each time as a culture we insist it comes spontaneously "from nowhere," as if work wasn't, and shouldn't be, involved. In a secular society, faith too is reduced to a pretentious magic trick that pales in comparison to modern technologies. And yet, in our constant pursuit to uplift and accommodate the individual, we wind up denied access somehow to ourselves. It is "the kingdom of boredom," which manifests in absence and excess that Wiman comes to argue "could be the kingdom of God," noting that atheism is "equally useless in terms of understanding your experience, but easier to move away from"; a practical convenience in a culture that works hard to prohibit and disparage opportunities for self-reflection. For all of its ethereal and otherworldly wanderings, My Bright Abyss is very much a product of our times. The difference is that Wiman seeks to challenge what that means. As he writes, "We crave radical ruptures when we have allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb."

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