A poet meditates on life and death

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (Farrar Straus Giroux)

- Reviewed by Casey N. Cep

A few summers ago, I served as a chaplain at a large, urban hospital. Some patients came for brief stays, others for long periods, and some left only when they took their leave from this life. Patients let me into their lives one conversation and, often, one prayer at a time. Some celebrated, others mourned; many wept, and a few rejoiced at the lives they had already led or hoped to live when they returned to the world outside of the hospital.

I learned something from these patients about the way in which the soul faces disease and death: Whether with courage or with fear, the soul looks both forward and backward, with uncommon clarity at itself and at the world.

This is the perilous posture occupied by the poet Christian Wiman in his memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Wiman is the author of three collections of poetry—The Long Home, Hard Night, and Every Riven Thing—a translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poems, and another memoir called Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. For the last ten years, he has edited Poetry magazine; in July, he will begin teaching as Senior Lecturer in Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School.

My Bright Abyss follows Wiman’s diagnosis with a rare cancer of the blood. Written during hospital stays and in between treatments that included a bone marrow transplant, the episodic memoir begins with a poem that Wiman cannot finish writing.

The final stanza of the unfinished poem is the epigraph of the memoir’s first section: ‘My God my bright abyss / into which all my longing will not go / I come to the edge of all I know / and believing nothing believe in this:’

There are some memoirs that celebrate the arrival of faith, others that offer a personal theodicy of suffering, and many that lament the affront of grief to faith.

That open jaw of a colon went unanswered for the three years of Wiman’s illness, but it finds its answer in Wiman’s memoir, which labours to articulate the author’s beliefs about poetry, suffering, and faith. A melding of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed, Wiman’s My Bright Abyss attempts to do in one volume what Lewis did in three.

In the canon of Christian memoirs typified by Lewis, there are some that celebrate the arrival of faith, others that offer a personal theodicy of suffering, and many that lament the affront of grief to faith. Wiman does all three, but also asks the same questions of poetry that he does of religious belief.

Burnished and beautiful, My Bright Abyss is a sobering look at faith and poetry by a man who believes fiercely in both, but fears he might be looking at them for the last time. Wiman’s memoir is innovative in its willingness to interrogate not only religious belief, but one of its most common surrogates, literature.

Wiman’s story is chiefly a love affair: of a poet with words, of a husband with his wife and two daughters, of a believer with the holy. Writing against those who might call themselves spiritual but not religious and those whose experience of religion is without creed or community, Wiman affirms: ‘Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God.’

Wiman’s theology is grounded in the cross of Christ, thus Christ appears to Wiman in both tragedy and transcendence: in his marriage and in his cancer, in his poetry and in his inability to write. Many contemporary memoirs of faith speak of the life and death of Jesus without attending to the distinctive Christian belief in his resurrection.

But Wiman’s is a faith cognisant of both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ. “To every age,’ he reflects, ‘Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of man.’

Here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel...

- Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She holds an M.Phil. in Theology from Oxford University, where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar

Full review in The New Republic:  http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112710/my-bright-abyss-christian-wiman-reviewed-casey-cep#

Andrew Sullivan dishes: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/04/07/on-christian-wimans-my-bright-abyss/

Q & A in The New York Times: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/jolts-from-life-christian-wiman-talks-about-my-bright-abyss/

Review in The Washington Post: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-03-28/entertainment/38096214_1_poetry-magazine-christian-wiman-diagnosis

Buy this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8

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