My Bright Abyss by the poet and essayist Christian Wiman is an absorbing, challenging book about the author’s struggles with faith, a book that presents with a countering linguistic resourcefulness a linguistic struggle set within a more personal struggle of self-recognition and realization. How today can a poet who takes words such as “faith” and “soul” and “Christ” seriously, a poet who should care about words most and subscribe most to their powers of insight and transport, articulate the struggle to experience God’s presence when it is powerfully felt? Or, at least, how can he avoid describing the experience of belief, or conceiving of one’s own believing, in ways not false? Too often, Wiman writes, such efforts are rendered impotent by a religious language that fails to burn anymore, and a secular culture indifferent to it anyway.
The problem of language seems less worrisome than the problems of limited self-awareness and a chaotic experience of life that precludes thoughtfulness or peace: these states ultimately feel like the book’s greatest adversaries. Wiman’s desired goals seem misleadingly simple, patent but profoundly hard to accomplish: to live well and alert to life’s “million little oblivions,” to be honest with one’s self, to avoid a “résumé” life in which one erodes or becomes hollowed out beneath a shell, to have a soul open to God, and to be at peace, some way and somehow, with ultimate meaning such as it is in our attempts to grasp it.
What does faith mean, finally, at this late date? I often feel that it means no more than, and no less than, faith in life—in the ongoingness of it, the indestructability, some atom-by-atom intelligence that is and isn’t us, some day-by-day and death-by-death persistence insisting on a more-than-human hope, some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with the eyes to see it, love.
Wiman’s overall goal, it seems, is to cultivate a nimble, resilient faith, steering between mystical and dogmatic extremes but feeling a proper regard for each. It is a faith that not only has the capacity to change as we and our circumstances inevitably change, but whose very nature is to change so as not to be left behind or rendered useless. Wiman must also attempt all of this despite being—or maybe, because of being—in the midst of love (for the woman who would become his wife, and later his twin daughters, and also for the God he was improbably rediscovering after a west-Texas childhood steeped in religion.) For seven years, he has also lived amid the pain, fear, and mortal edge of bone cancer. The book, in short, is a narrative of and reflection upon these different growths.
Overall, then, My Bright Abyss meditates on big things and the author’s personal struggles to relate to them truly, or even face them at all. In this way, Wiman’s book will appeal to readers drawn to classics of spiritual memoir or unflinching testimony by Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others. And even for readers who sometimes turn a wary eye toward such books, there is a straight-talking, approachably self-deprecating, and most of all insightful quality to My Bright Abyss that they will find refreshing. Wiman’s poetic gifts of precise, concrete language and imaginative metaphors most often enable these insights, although willingness for blunt examination is as essential. As a record of intellectual assent, evasion, and development, the book brought to mind C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, although Lewis is not an author cited here. Many authors are cited though, as Wiman is generous in sharing his readings in poetry and theology, to the point that his book doubles as a shorthand anthology or commonplace book, with poems and stanzas by well-known Christian poets (George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur) and some of the greatest twentieth-century European poets (Osip Mandelstam, Czeslaw Milosz, Paul Celan), along with passages by theological thinkers (Augustine, Bonaventure, Jürgen Moltmann, and George Lindbeck). It also includes a little testament of Wiman’s own poetry, from his last acclaimed collection Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) and recent volume of Mandelstam translations (Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Ecco, 2012), and even new and early-but-heretofore-unpublished poems.
As it happens, I lately taught an intensive, month-long course on Dante, and while doing so I was reading My Bright Abyss. For all of its high subject matter and searing personal story, it was a friendly, readable book that quickly provided traction and momentum even in tandem with teaching demands. The format was partly the reason for this invitational quality. Its eleven chapters are divided into short entries, ranging from anecdote and personal disclosure to theological exploration or literary analysis following a poem. Wiman humbly speaks late in the book of “these little fragments,” and readers of his past prose collection, Ambition and Survival (Copper Canyon 2007), will find the format familiar.
This parallel reading also brought forward some important Dantean elements in Wiman and his book. Like Dante’s writings, Wiman’s poetry and prose both have long been characterized by a severity whose very expressiveness ensures that it is never off-putting. Wiman invokes Dante directly when arguing for a necessarily more complex, tentative, flexible understanding of faith, belief, and knowledge of Christ. Since we live “mutable and messy” lives, no “fixed, mental product” misnamed as faith will do: “Christ is the only way toward knowledge of God, and Christ is contingency.” There is much we don’t know, and to think we know something more than we do is to risk ignorance far greater than the limited knowledge we ought to settle for, and the increased attention to the perception of our life and experience for which we should strive. Wiman’s quotation from Dante’s Paradiso offers a warning against our presumptions. There Dante the traveler learns of the surprising presence of the Trojan Ripheus and Roman emperor Trajan among the blessed. Dante hears that “some who cry the name of Christ / Live more remote from love / Than some who cry to a void they cannot name.” Wiman is sensitive and supportive of those who cry to a void, for he has done so himself, and sometimes feels like he still does so.
Continuing the comparison, Wiman’s writing is at its best when he shows a confidence in language that reminds me of Dante’s increasing use of Italian neologisms as he enters heavenly spheres and experiences things for which he has neither language nor, in the thread of his fiction, adequate memory. Wiman, describing the increasing, immobilizing pain he endured as his cancer became more aggressive, tells how the pain’s effect was “to island” him, leaving him unable to seek solace in reading or feel anything but isolated from even loved ones around him. Dante loves these noun-verbs, “to in-three,” “to in-where,” “to-imparadise,” and Wiman’s use of “afterimage” likewise has a very Dantean resonance, at once bold and super-subtle in its efforts to describe. Wiman also exhibits a visionary’s sense of increased reality that too quickly dissolves, as he describes here a friend’s faith that later in life she has lost: “Once it seemed that love lit the world from within and made it taken on a sacred radiance, but somehow that fire burned through everything and now I walk lost in the land of ash.”
Instead of “confidence,” perhaps I should speak instead of a poet’s authority, for in these contemplations Wiman often displays a felicitous shortage of confidence that allows him to speak freely and constantly to challenge his own ideas. “Be careful,” he writes at one point, as much to himself writing as to us reading. This reminds me of Dante’s regular corrections, especially in that last canticle, when what he thought he knew so assuredly is shown in heaven’s clearer light to be, in Robert and Jean Hollander’s translation, “an abyss of error.” (There, though, Dante has simply written “grande errore.”)
Finally, there is that word, “abyss,” that Wiman shares with Dante. Most obviously it applies to Dante’s first realm of the damned: “Are the laws of the abyss thus broken?” asks Cato, the surprisingly chosen guardian of Mt. Purgatory, when he first sees Virgil and Dante approach. Later in Purgatorio, speaking more clearly than usual in the voice of the poet, Dante addresses God and wonders if “Your righteous eyes” are turned elsewhere, given the sad, violent, depraved state of Italy. Or, if not turned altogether away, he further asks, “in Your abyss of contemplation / are You preparing some mysterious good, beyond our comprehension?” Dante’s use of “abyss” there, and the believer’s complicated response to God rendered in the word choice, reflects as well as anything Wiman’s own conflicted examination of what he calls that necessary contingency that faith requires and life presents. Wiman also uses the word multiple ways, to signify his sickness; the despair that arises at times of great pain, “an abyss of pure meaninglessness”; the “bright abyss” that his mind seems to be as he struggles for answers, a place that similarly can feel “devoid of any meaning.” It is also the place where we all must reckon with the ultimate realities of our lives. We fail to do so at our peril, Wiman is convinced, and he acknowledges that sometimes it takes sickness or another terror to force the occasion. A poem that begins and closes the book (except for one critical difference in punctuation) makes one final usage of “abyss” clear: “My God my bright abyss / into which all my longing will not go” […] The poem is the spirit of all of the great religious poets, and Wiman is increasingly appearing to be among their number. Like them, he looks into the abyss and may just find there a God that is sought and loved and loving, too. In the Commedia, Dante meets Guido del Duca, who eventually tells him, “I would rather weep than speak.” Wiman both weeps and speaks in his new book, and it is a good thing for him and for us.
Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2011), and Fall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s Open Chapbook Award, and has recently appeared. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College.