My Bright Abyss: Mediation of a Modern Believer
by Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April 2013
192 pages / $24 Buy from Amazon
“Silence is the language of faith” we read in Christian Wiman’s newest book of prose, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. This seems counter-intuitive (or perhaps even hyperbolic) coming from a poet, especially a poet of faith, but he explains, “action—be it church or charity, politics or poetry—is the translation. As with any translation, action is a mere echo of its original, inevitably faded and distorted, especially as it moves farther from its source.”
Christian Wiman is the current editor of Poetry magazine (though he announced his resignation in January), the author of several books of poems, including the recent and widely acclaimed Every Riven Thing and a new translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poems called Stolen Air, and another book of prose, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. Wiman is also one of the most important voices today on the confluence of art, especially poetry, and faith. In fact, the two are so ambiguously implicated, so crucially intimate, he rarely writes or discusses one without the other.
In the preface of this stunning new book of prose, Wiman explains he wrote it for those “frustrated with the language and forms of contemporary American religion, [but who] nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent gravity of the ghost called God.” I think we will find, then, his intended audience is vastly comprised and includes many of us, for the synaptic tangle of spirituality in America is still, to use Wiman’s word, burning. It seems wherever I go I encounter those dissatisfied with the way we talk, not only about art, its role in our entertainment-consuming culture, but spirituality too; as what it means to believe becomes more and more nebulous, our language becomes more and more reductive. Americans are frustrated with the way language has been abused, consumed, violated.
It seems we are at a loss for words.
Maybe it’s that the interiority of our lives seems so abstracted from the language used to describe it. But then, isn’t that why we’ve always turned to poetry? The anxiety of limitation, this constant—however subtle—desire for transcendence, is as present in art as it is in faith, we learn from Wiman. The first essay in My Bright Abyss, the title essay, opens with an unfinished poem:
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe this:
This stand-alone quatrain, Wiman explains, was written years ago, the rest of the poem evading each of his attempts to finish it. The pressure in this poem is fastened to that colon, to say what it is one believes, and allow language to solidify the belief. “As if it weren’t hard enough to articulate one’s belief, I seem to have wanted to distill it into a single stanza. Still, that is the way I have usually known my own mind, feeling through the sounds of words to the forms they make, and through the forms they make to the forms of life that are beyond them.”
Wiman concludes My Bright Abyss with this same quatrain, but this time a tiny but vital punctuation change appears: rather than a colon following “believing nothing believe this,” his new revision has a period. The subtle grammatical change, making the unfinished poem finished, points to an embrace of unknowing, hope over certainty, the flux of longing over the stagnancy of dogma. This approach to faith is generous and yet deeply skeptical, and endlessly paradoxical. Faith is not static, and poetry, really good poetry, isn’t either. Wiman writes, “But mostly I simply (simply!) try to subject myself to the possibility of God. I address God as if.” This “as if” is not only a tool common for writers, but a hinge, reality opening to imagination. The two not so antithetical, not so divided.
My Bright Abyss gives us eleven essays that are at once personal and philosophical, critical and inclusive. If it is possible to prolifically and empathetically investigate each existential imperative—death, art, love, and God—Wiman has offered us the closest thing. And it seems important to note “mediation” is not pluralized in the subtitle; this is one, holistic piece, from unfinished to finished quatrain. The essays are not unlike a poem in a collection, adding bone to the body, yet strong enough to stand alone. Each is immersed in conversation with the others, anchored to a common ambition: to restore the sacred extrapolation of our imaginations, the unfurling of faith and love in the moment of creating. And in the moment, Wiman hopes to find something permanent to bring the necessary pressures innate to language back to art and faith.
This is further contoured in My Bright Abyss by that which remains largely abstracted for most of us but is obvious and textured for Wiman: the imminence of death. Wiman suffers from an incurable and rare blood cancer. Some of his poems, and some of these essays, were written from a hospital bed. But his response is neither bleak nor proverbial, is both impressively introspective and outward looking. Take, for example, the titles of some essays comprising My Bright Abyss. They imply a balance of skepticism and reverence: “My Bright Abyss,” “Dear Oblivion,” “Sorrow’s Flower,” “Mortify Our Wolves.” Wiman writes with forceful honesty. His hope lays on the inchoate edge of impossibility and because of that becomes nearly tangible. “What is this world that we are so at odds with, this beauty by which we are so wounded, and into which God has so utterly gone? Into which, rather than from which: in a grain of grammar, a world of hope.”
Again, language points the way, even in the humble cloak of a preposition.
Later Wiman writes, “Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God, but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.” For poetry to make the mystery of the world accessible (accessible, not explainable), we must be present and active in it. In a moment of creating or participating in poetry, we will sense a narrative that far proceeds and extends our own.
We learn from Wiman that this ability to embrace uncertainty, whether it results in anxiety or love or ache, reflects one’s ability to imagine beyond circumstance, to look past explanations birthed from our fallible, human reason. We do not know what we believe, but we are certain of the doubt and finitude, certain of the longing, and the edge of abyss where we peer in and “believing nothing, believe this.”
Christian Wiman explains in the first essay his desire to articulate what it is he believes, to integrate the burn of being with the arduous reality of day-to-day, what he calls “the poetry and the prose of knowing.” The maturity of Wiman’s voice, the quiet that suffuses his words and indicates his gravity of introspection, and the gorgeous cadence offered in damn near every sentence make this one book I’ll relentlessly recommend to those peering into the terrifying and beautiful abyss—which is to say, anyone and everyone. We are indebted to him, a poet who revels in the limitations of language in My Bright Abyss and therefore, consequently and in a blaze, transcends those limitations.
Caitlin Mackenzie’s work can be found in Fugue, The Colorado Review, Books & Culture, CutBank (forthcoming), Lambda Literary (forthcoming) Plain Spoke, and THEthepoetry among others. After graduating from the Bennington Writing Seminars she moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she writes, works in book publishing, and rides her bicycle.