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A Poet Confronts Cancer

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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 Thinga 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:”

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 labors 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.

The memoir begins with the unfinished poem, the occasion for turning from poetry to prose, but moves quickly into memories of Wiman’s childhood in West Texas. Raised a Southern Baptist, Wiman left Christianity for much of his adult life, having adopted a “brand of bookish atheism” in college. He resisted a return to the religiosity of his youth until his marriage, when he remembers: “it was human love that reawakened divine love.” When Wiman and his wife began praying together before dinner, they found themselves newly open to the possibility of belief. Then came Wiman’s diagnosis with cancer, and they found their way into a tiny church at the end of their street that they had ignored for years.

“The sanctuary was small, starkly beautiful,” Wiman remembers. The congregation and its pastor, along with a whole host of historical witnesses—from Augustine and Teresa of Avila to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Herbert—became fellow travelers for Wiman as he confronted his cancer and considered his burgeoning faith.1

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 cognizant 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.”

MacmillanPOETICS OF BELIEFChristian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine for the past 10 years, will step down to begin teaching at Yale Divinity School this July.

The task of finding expression for that renewal, Wiman argues, is imperative. He suspects that the decline of faith might even be linked to the decay of language that can describe faith. “We need a poetics of belief,” Wiman writes of our age, “a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.”

Here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel. Wiman argues that inherited theological language is no longer able to express our contemporary religious experience—a new language is needed to express belief. No wonder that the book turns to apophatic language—the description of God by negation, by what God is not—in one of its final sections called “Varieties of Quiet.”

Wiman draws on the apophatic theologies of the German philosopher Meister Eckhart and the French mystic Marguerite Porete, who wrote, as Wiman describes, in “language that seems to negate or undermine the very assertions that it is making.”2 Such parsimony is uncommon in contemporary religious discourse, though such invocations might allow us to slough off the sanguine and saccharine language that has strangled the vocabulary of faith.

The via negativa has long been a way to invoke the ineffability of the divine, not only in Christianity, but also in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam; for Wiman, the return to apophaticism is a way between poetry and faith, allowing a faithful poet to move beyond the limitations of the content and the form of his religious beliefs.

My Bright Abyss bestrides faith and poetry, confronting how both fall short of ameliorating, or even expressing, human suffering. The penultimate section of the book, “Mortify Our Wolves,” speaks of and to this pain. “Years of treatments, abatements, hope, [and] hell” brought Wiman to the edge of both poetry and faith.

Oh, that familiar edge: the boundary between what is known and what is only hoped for. I met it many times during my summer as a chaplain. I came, so often, to the edge of faith and the end of words.

“Poetry,” Wiman writes, “is for psychological, spiritual, or emotional pain. For physical pain it is, like everything but drugs, useless.” The same, even for the most devout believer, is true of faith: It cannot dull pain; it rarely ends suffering. Yet, faith does something else in the face of suffering. It shows Wiman “that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.”

The pain is real; the solitude is not. Like Wiman, “I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die.” Disease, destruction, and death are all terrifyingly real forces. The incredible affirmation of faith that Wiman makes in My Bright Abyss does not testify to an end of suffering, but the end of solitude: For God, he argues, is with us even, and especially, in our suffering and the suffering of the world.

Wiman calls his memoir the “Meditation of a Modern Believer,” and it is that, but more than meditation, it is an apologia and a prayer, an invitation and a fellow traveler for any who suffer and all who believe.

  1. Wiman’s appeals to historical witnesses are themselves a syllabus of faith: Augustine’s Confessions, Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin (1961)Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Translated by E. Allison Peers (1946)George Herbert’s The Country Parson and The Temple, Edited by John Nelson Wall (1981)Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, Translated by R.H. Fuller (1948)
  2. Further Reading in mystical theology:Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, Translated by Edmund Colledge (1981)Marguerite Porete: The Mirror of Simple Souls, Translated by Ellen Babinksy (1993)Michael Sells’s Mystical Languages of Unsaying (1994)