Saturday, August 17, 2013

Christian Wiman's "My Bright Abyss": Book Review

Diagnosed on his thirty-seventh birthday via a “curt voice mail message” with cancer, Christian Wiman confronts his fate, his drift from his West Texas Baptist small-town upbringing, and his decision to revive his “latent” faith, conscious of all its confusions and ambiguities. After twenty years a poet, he analyzes in these spare essays his seven years living with bone marrow transplants, and with his two twin daughters and his wife, as he faces down pain and as he examines belief.

Mr. Wiman warns early on: “if you have believed at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life”. His life has been a wandering one; he mentions moving forty times in fifteen years. While little of his background or subsequent profession emerges from the few facts he chooses to share, he shares much about his thoughts on death, mortality, and divine presence, or the lack of such when examining the impact of his prognosis. 

The essays, which an acknowledgement notes were published in some form in eleven different publications, may stray from the themes of modern belief. Yet, for all its dispersion, this book roams around a central concern for a contemporary Christian. For one schooled in modernism, and for one committed to the craft of literature, Mr. Wiman contemplates the predicament of those raised after post-modernism, who prefer to believe in -- or argue over -- a good book more than the Good Book. 

Borrowing Paul Tillich’s phrase, Mr. Wiman posits that art replaces death as the “ultimate concern” today. Whereas for Dickinson, Stevens, Beckett, and Camus, a transcendental absence beckoned, for more recent writers, post-modernism “sought to eliminate death in the frenzy of the instant, to deflect it with irony and hard-edged surfaces in which, because nothing was valued more than anything else, nothing was subject to ultimate confirmation or denial”. Certainly, “ultimate” hovers as a telling term here, as Mr. Wiman urges a fresh way “to imagine ourselves in and out of death”, even if “the old religious palliatives” such as the Christian idea of heaven certainly appear inadequate. 

Citing Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mr. Wiman finds a congenial if chilly voice: “The God who lets his love in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually.” 

Yet, like dew, his own faith rests as he awakes some days, full of promise. Then “it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions”. Such honesty offers readers skeptical of faith-claims and inspirational bromides a brisk, sobering series of reflections on a mature acceptance of faith affirmed cautiously. 

Alienation permeates many of these short chapters. They may stay calm or they may turn edgy. Language, lies, his calling as a poet, frustration, and death as our inevitable sentence: all crowd these pages with a serious look at faith. “Faith is the word faith decaying into pure meaning.”

After tenderly commending the love and support given by his daughters and his wife, Mr. Wiman in his chemotherapy-induced pain realizes: “It was God straining through matter to make me see, and to grant me the grace of simple praise.” The final chapter of these accessible, yet learned, meditations tries to avoid the tone of an elegy. Still, its author admits, “the very things that have led us to God are the things we must sacrifice”. 

Recommended for readers who prefer poetry and criticism to platitudes or self-help texts, this memoir suits an audience able to balance intelligent insight with open-minded possibility, as a talented poet challenges his own and our verities. (4-20-13 to New York Journal of Books)

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