My Bright Abyss

BELIEF: Where The Joy Came In by Christian Wiman

August 15, 2018

From My Bright Abyss From a Window Incurable and unbelieving in any truth but the truth of grieving, I saw a tree inside a tree rise kaleidoscopically as if the leaves had livelier ghosts. I pressed my face as close to the pane as I could get to watch that fitful, fluent spirit that seemed a single being undefined or countless beings of one mind haul its strange cohesion beyond the limits of my vision over the house heavenwards. Of course I knew those leaves were birds. Of course that old tree stood exactly as it had and would (but why should it seem fuller now?) and though a man’s mind might endow even a tree with some excess of life to which a man seems witness, that life is not the life of men. And that is where the joy came in. I [...]

BELIEF: The Cry Of Faith by Christian Wiman

August 8, 2018

From My Bright Abyss But the fight is quiet sometimes too.  Even for those in hell.  Bonhoeffer: “It will be the task of our generation, not to ‘seek great things,’ but to save and preserve our souls out of the chaos, and to realize that it is the only thing we can carry as a ‘prize’ from the burning building.” What is the difference between the cry of pain that is also a cry of praise and a cry of pain that is pure despair?  Faith?  The cry of faith, 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 faithlessness 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 [...]

BELIEF: A Species Of Love by Christian Wiman

August 1, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.  This is as true in life as it is in art.  Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted.  What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us?  This is what it means to love.  This is what it should mean to write one more poem.  The inner and outer urgency of it, the mysterious and confused agency of it.  All love abhors habit, and poetry is a species of love. Art needs some ultimate concern, to use Paul [...]

BELIEF: A Question Of Intensity by Christian Wiman

July 25, 2018

From My Bright Abyss The Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a radiant moral presence amid the murderous twentieth century, was safe in the United States when Hitler’s intentions began to be made clear.  He could have stayed here, could have assumed a prestigious post at Union Theological Seminary and spent his life as a comfortable and influential public intellectual.  But the decision was not all that difficult for him: he went back to a disintegrating and dangerous Germany because, as he said, if he did not suffer his country’s destruction, he could not credibly participate in its restoration.  He went back because, as he had written earlier, “Only the obedient believe.  If we are to believe, we must obey a [...]

BELIEF: A Noble Ambition by Christian Wiman

July 18, 2018

From My Bright Abyss I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself.  But now?  If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world.  No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self – except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself.  That is [...]

BELIEF: God’s Truth Is Life by Christian Wiman

July 11, 2018

From My Bright Abyss When I was twenty years old I spent an afternoon with Howard Nemerov.  He was the first “famous” poet I had ever met, though I would later learn that he was deeply embittered by what he perceived to be a lack of respect from critics and other poets.  (I once heard Thom Gunn call him a “zombie.”)  My chief memories are of his great eagerness to nail down the time and place for his midday martini, his reciting “Animula” when I told him I loved Eliot, and his asking me at one point – with what I now realize was great patience and kindness – what I was going to do when I graduated from college later that year.  I had no plans, no ambitions clear enough to recognize as such, no interest in any of the [...]

BELIEF: Tender Interior by Christian Wiman

July 5, 2018

From My Bright Abyss In my early twenties I found myself reduced to living in a twenty-five foot trailer in a tiny, dying town in far West Texas.  There was a certain unresonant symmetry to the experience, as I had lived in the trailer as an infant, along with my older brother and our almost-infant parents.  By the time of this second residence, the trailer was in my grandmother’s backyard, where my great-grandmother had lived for thirty years until her death, in 1990.  My grandmother’s sister – Aunt Sissy, to me – a gentle, whiskery woman with failing health and an obvious but undiagnosed lifelong mental deficiency, also lived in the “big house,” which was a small house with six shadowy rooms, a million immaculate nooks, [...]

BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower—In Transition by Christian Wiman

June 27, 2018

From My Bright Abyss At once more truly and more strange.  I used the phrase before I remembered the source.  And an ironic source it is.  Here is Wallace Steven’s “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”: Not less because in purple I descended The western day through what you called The loneliest air, not less was I myself. What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard? What were the hymns that buzzed beside my ears? What was the sea whose tide swept through me there? Out of my mind the golden ointment rained, And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard. I was myself the compass of that sea: I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw Or heard or felt came not but from myself; And there I found myself more truly and more strange. [...]

BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower—A Quick Shudder Of The Heart by Christian Wiman

June 20, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Sorrow is so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, or at least any understanding of our souls that we are able to attain, that every experience is dyed with its color.  This is why, even in moments of joy, part of that joy is the seams of ore that are our sorrow.  They burn darkly and beautifully in the midst of joy, and they make joy the complete experience that it is.  But they still burn. And why this sorrow?  Why its persistence, its involvement with all that is my soul?  Childhood was difficult, and most of it remains inaccessible to me, but I was deeply loved.  And I am capable of deep love now for the people in my life, for my work.  I love the life that I have been granted in this deepening [...]

BELIEF: Sorrow’s Flower— Contingency by Christian Wiman

June 13, 2018

From My Bright Abyss Adele, who at nearly sixty years old finds that her faith has fallen away, tells me that it was love that first led her to God.  Thirty-five years earlier, love for the man who would be her husband for most of her life seemed to crack open the world and her heart at the same time, seemed to fuse those latent, living energies into a single flame, the name of which, she knew, was God.  There were careers and children.  There were homes laid claim to and relinquished.  There was something perhaps too usual for a love that had torn her so wholly open, but time takes the edge off of any experience, life means mostly waiting for life, or remembering it – right?  She tells me all this – right up to the depressingly [...]

BELIEF: My Bright Abyss—Hunger by Christian Wiman

June 6, 2018

From My Bright Abyss When I assented to the faith that was latent within me – and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.  When I assented to the faith that was latent within me, what struck me were the ways in which my evasions and confusions, which I had mistaken for a strong sense of purpose, had expressed themselves in my life: [...]

BELIEF: My Bright Abyss—A Mild Abeyance Of Belief by Christian Wiman

May 30, 2018

From My Bright Abyss If you return to the faith of your childhood after long wandering, people whose orientations are entirely secular will tend to dismiss or at least deprecate the action as having psychological motivations – motivations, it goes without saying, of which you are unconscious.  As it happens, you have this suspicion yourself.  It eats away at the intensity of the experience that made you proclaim, however quietly, your recovered faith, and soon you find yourself getting stalled in arguments between religion and science, theology and history, trying to nail down doctrine like some huge and much-torn tent in the wind. In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve [...]

BELIEF: My Bright Abyss—Conversion by Christian Wiman

May 23, 2018

From My Bright Abyss 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: And there the poem ends.  Or fails, rather, for in the several years since I first wrote that stanza I have been trying to feel my way – to will my way – into its ending.  Poems in general are not especially susceptible to the will, but this one, for obvious reasons, has proved particularly intractable.  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 [...]