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A Cloud of Witness
Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light
Whitney Rio-Ross

Poet Christian Wiman began his journey into faith about a decade ago, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His story, however, is not your cliché near-death conversion. Rather, Wiman’s turn to Christianity was a slow, yet long-time-coming move toward the questions and desires that most consumed him. His loneliness, despair, and yearning for something he could not articulate did not so much lead him to finding God as it did to recognizing God’s absence, which is a form of finding. He Held Radical Light delves into those desires that landed him where he is today. From the very beginning, Wiman sets a tone of yearning and wonder, claiming, “Poetry itself—like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.”

Wiman

Wiman tells his “conversion” story in his essay collection My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer. In He Held Radical Light, Wiman revisits his faith narrative and many of the same themes he has addressed before, but he does so in a surprisingly different form, one that keeps his narrative fresh and layered. Where My Bright Abyss consists of many essays, this new book comes as a narrative that focuses on particular moments and anecdotes, all of which include a poet Wiman has known. We see him grow from a lost but ambitious college student to editor of the inimitable Poetry magazine to a well-known speaker on faith and art to his current position as a professor at Yale Divinity School.

He Held Radical Light is not for the faint of intellect. While My Bright Abyss was certainly thoughtful and aimed for an intelligent audience, Wiman’s new book requires even more from his readers. Here, they will find not only the kind of existential and theological questions Wiman has raised and attempted to answer before, but also thorough literary analysis tied to dense theology from the likes of Karl Barth. Coming in at one hundred fifteen pages, the book covers a lot of ground—all fat has been trimmed. Understandably, the book gives no space for lazy or distracted reading; every page requires one’s full attention. Those who do not enjoy serious discussions on literature or philosophy should choose other reading.

Still, I expect a few systematic theologians might turn up their noses at the book, however much beautiful language, keen insight, and sound literary criticism it contains. I can imagine some labeling Wiman’s book as watered-down, or perhaps even self-indulgent in its musings. It is easy for me to imagine such phrases because some breeds of theologians use them quite liberally, asserting that rigorous theology (Lord, forgive those who say “real”) should follow the academic formula: introduction, outline, thesis stated by the third page. Anything less is insufficient. Wiman, however, is not aiming for this kind of “sufficient” theology (he would wince at such a phrase), but he is writing theology. He Held Radical Light simply goes about it in a different form, fit for Wiman’s existential and artistic purposes. He does not sacrifice theology for the sake of memoir. Rather, he allows theology to open up his own story, and the way he tells his story opens theology from an angle dogmatics cannot. We see a similar approach in the work of Frederick Buechner, Henry Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, and others. What is most ambitious about Wiman’s book, though, is that it does not only bring together theology and memoir. He also throws poetics and literary analysis into the mix. Oddly enough, this experiment works.

When Wiman struggles to articulate a conviction or question, he opens a poem, interrogates it, and cherishes it. The reader-response that follows laces the language, reflection, inquiries, and narrative into a surprisingly striking tapestry. The book includes many outstanding, theologically rich poems that unpack or illustrate Wiman’s points, a small anthology of the poems that have shaped him. One poem, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” acts as a refrain a few times throughout the book. Wiman uses the poem to discuss art’s possible dangers, the complications of poetry, and despair, among other things. Wiman’s statements on these topics would stand on their own, but they would not dance. They need the poem’s chilling music.

He Held Radical Light is a book of many risks. Wiman writes theology in a form open to criticism from systematic theologians, but he also makes more theological claims than many artists would be willing to venture, claims that some writers would passionately argue against. (In a story detailing his first academic conference, he notes how heated and personal the arguments about Wallace Stevens became.) Wiman dares to suggest how God appears in other poets’ work and the theological implications of poetic choices and approaches. It is indeed risky business to state opinions and convictions about art and the divine at all, given that many artistic and spiritual circles often consider shrugs the sexiest and most self-actualized approach to such questions.

Wiman operates in that difficult and dangerous space between dogmatics and pure mystery. He leaves room for mystery—demands it, in fact. Yet his arguments suggest that not only is babbling in the face of mystery a form of irreverence, but complete silence is as well. Opening ourselves to questions too large for our language does not mean language is a lost cause. That is despair. Wiman addresses despair a hundred times, noting its inevitability and seeming inescapability. But he does not champion it. To write at all, he believes, is to rage against despair. Wiman risks being wrong, risks saying that one can be wrong, risks a conversation not well-suited for a dinner party or book launch. But in the words of poet Jane Hirschfield in her poem “Sentencing”: “Think assailable thoughts, or be lonely.” He Held Radical Light is decidedly not lonely.

Like Wiman’s life, his book is populated by other writers. They are, in fact, what hold the narrative together. Every section describes Wiman’s interaction with a poet who changed him. Through these moments, he tracks where he was personally, artistically, and spiritually at the time. The book builds a community of poets, an antidote to the romanticized solitary artist. Yes, there is loneliness; none of us can escape it, including Wiman. What he can do, however, is remind fellow artists that they are not in fact alone.

Wiman finds common threads between these artists, but he also shows their differences in how they tackle the same questions and artistic struggles—ambition, inspiration, etc. As is his style when talking theology, Wiman does not attempt to give a neat definition of what a poet is or should be. Rather, He Held Radical Light delights in particularity. Wiman does not attempt to define a poet, but show her. And she is shown in love—tenderness for the flesh and blood whence the words came. This posture is both incarnational and ecclesial, which of course shapes the theology; Wiman’s theology does not exist in a vacuum but is tied to the humans who embody it.

This embodied and relational approach builds a strong emotional core, as one would expect from the writer of My Bright Abyss or any of Wiman’s poetry collections. Of course, the stories from his own life and other poets’ lives bring palpable joy, humor, and grief to his meditations. (If the chapter on Craig Arnold does not wreck at least a small part of your heart, I suggest checking for a pulse.) But additionally, and perhaps more interestingly, his careful readings of the poems also pierce. Wiman writes about his selected poems with an attention and passion that is nothing short of contagious. I dare any good reader, even one who disagrees entirely with one of his analyses, to walk away from any of these poems indifferent to their language. Wiman animates both the poets and poems, giving more life to both.

Wiman dedicated He Held Radical Light to the late poet Donald Hall, a dear friend who died three months before the book’s release and who appears throughout the book in loving terms. As a whole, He Held Radical Light is a book of love—love for poetry, for poets, and for God. No word comes without a human voice, and no poet appears without her music. God appears with and through both. And while Wiman brings difficult theological concepts to the forefront of these stories and readings, he also gives the sense that God (or God’s absence) cannot be kept out of it all. As A.R. Ammons’ “Hymn” notes, “You are everywhere partial and entire / You are on the inside of everything and on the outside.” The divine haunts and illuminates every line and poet. As I read about these people Wiman has loved and marveled at their individual wisdom, faith, and words, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” comes to mind: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” He Held Radical Light shows the reader delighted and tormented faces, voices singing grief and praise. In those, the reader may find truths that even poets themselves could not articulate.

 

Whitney Rio-Ross is an adjunct English instructor at Trevecca Nazarene University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gravel, The Windhover, The Other Journal, Rock & Sling, America, and elsewhere.

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