• *** Final Exam dates for Fall 2018 semester start on December 15 and end on December 20.
  • *** Withdrawal deadline for Fall 2018 semester is on November 8, 2018
  • *** Fall 2018 semester starts September 02, 2018 and ends December 20, 2018
Only Plenitude at The Void: The Sacred Music in Christian Wiman’s every riven thing

Dr. Omar Sabbagh

To love is to feel your death
given to you like a sentence,
to meet the judge’s eyes
as if there were a judge,
as if he had eyes,
and love.
(‘Gone For The Day, She Is The Day’)
Christian Wiman’s spiritual meditation, My Bright Abyss, is in my view on a par with another outstanding spiritual autobiography from just over a century earlier, Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. Indeed, in the ‘Preface’ of perhaps the most penetrating book written about Chesterton, Hugh Kenner’s Paradox in Chesterton, Marshall McLuhan avers that Chesterton possessed a ‘metaphysical intuition of being. And I’d say the same about Wiman. Part of the ‘metaphysical’ aspect of Wiman’s gambits in this superlative collection, every riven thing, shows up in how integrated the formal craftsmanship is with the sentiments expressed thereby. Wiman is both like Eliot’s ‘metaphysical poets’ in this sense, anything but dissociated, as well as in a very pronounced way echoic of Eliot himself.
The first poem in the collection, ‘Dust Devil,’ starts us in Wiman’s childhood, ‘in a time when time stopped.’ The devilishness of the toy ‘top’ detailed in the poem is a complement to the toying of both child and adult author, recollecting – but more than this, as we’ll see, the devilry of Fate or God toying with him. In this thin-versed poem, Wiman speaks of his ‘art’ in paradoxes, as ‘flourishing / vanishing,’ or as artifact of both, ‘cohesion / illusion.’ And this tallies with his (already mentioned) superbly poised spiritual meditation, where he follows in the footsteps of the likes of Bonhoeffer and Weil, and the Jurgen Moltmann of The Crucified God. Whether we call it ‘affliction,’ ‘the void,’ or what have you, these Christian thinkers were eminently modernist in seeing God, not as necessity, but as ‘contingency.’ The essence of Christ’s mission resided for them in his penultimate words, about having been ‘forsaken.’ These thinkers – Wiman in their train – locate God, plenitude or infinity, precisely in His absconding and voiding. God is the god of reality, thus: which means that the essence of mortal life is what happens to you, shorn of your own egotistical intentionality or wishes or projections. If God is the Real, then there’s nothing romantic about God.
The next feature that struck me about this collection was how often Wiman thematized poetry itself. By this I don’t mean the idea expressed in ‘This Mind of Dying,’ in which the prayer runs, ‘My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language / to a fear that I can bear;’ or, later, in ‘Late Fragment’ the implicit redemption of a painful memory by way of sweet musicality:
My father was a boat builder.
Prow of a man, his world a sea to cleave.
I learned a dangerous patience,
to navigate night, live on nothing, leave.
No. What I mean is that poetry in essence is the alienation of selfhood into language; in this sense, poetry finds its apogee in the lack of self-regard, which latter tends towards unwitting self-occlusion. We see this effective ‘othering,’ for instance, in the arced use of a ‘tree,’ ‘the unyielding one,’ in ‘After The Diagnosis,’ or, later, in the telling list:
All stories stop: once more you’re lost
in something I can merely see:
steam spiriting out of black coffee,
the scorched pores of toast, a bowl
of apple butter like edible soil…
Or then, opening the closing poem of the first section, ‘A Good Landscape For Grief:’
A good landscape for grief
has no hill higher than a furrow,
a few gouty cacti,
perhaps a withered tree or two
if only to remind you
of what’s missing.
For all his speculative boldness, Wiman’s descriptive flair evinces both a highly refined (and playful) ear and a truly seeing eye: both, immanently. Highly idiosyncratic, effortlessly fresh, as well as deeply accessible and engaging, we read of how – speaking of an adult neighbor from his childhood – he ‘… loved the eyesore opulence / of his five partial cars, the wonder-cluttered porch / with its oil spill plumage…’ (‘Five Houses Down’).
Homonyms and puns loom large across the collection. In ‘The Mole’ we open with ‘After love / discovers it….’Which is to say, something age-old: ‘discovering.’ And then, embracing both ‘moles’ – cancerous blemish and animal-metaphor – we read how ‘he breaks
into a wide
smile, as if joy
were the animal
in him, blind,
scrabbling, earth-
covered creature
up from God…
Paradox and punning again, here towards the end of the second installment of ‘Not Altogether Alone:’
When there is nothing left to curse
you can curse nothing
but when there is nothing left to love
the heart eats inward and inward its own need
for release…
Nuanced laughter in the face of tragedy, again, in the fifth installment of the latter:
To live amid the jackal looks of unlove,
all the relatives circling eerily warily the scent
of their own blood…
And in ‘Voice Of One Head,’ a poem which tells tales from 9/11, we read of how, ‘It seemed there was not one of us / not one of us….’
There are echoes of other devotional poets throughout the collection. Donne’s sonnet, praying to a ‘three-personed-God,’ is evoked when we read at the end of ‘Small Prayer In A Hard Wind,’ ‘shatter me God into my thousand sounds.’ By turns, Wiman is synesthetic, as when in ‘And I Said To My Soul, Be Loud,’ he speaks (a tad mock-heroically) of how he’s ‘… the sound the sun would make / if the sun could make a sound.’Re-visiting the theme of constituting the sacred from radical contingency, perhaps there’s something of Eliot’s ‘etherized’ patient closing the following (later in the last-mentioned poem):
For I am come a whirlwind of wasted things
and I will ride this tantrum back to God
until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self
withers in me like a salted slug.
The eponymous poem, ‘every riven thing,’uses difference in repetition across a highly taut, but nonetheless effortlessly fluent form. Wiman thematizes how existence (‘thing’) is only itself or only becomes itself as ‘riven.’‘To believe is to believe you have been torn / from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim,’ (‘One Time’); ‘…I say God and mean more / than the bright abyss that opens in that word,’ (from the second installment of the same). 
Singing in ‘I Sing Insomnia,’ we read at the last of how the poet is:
            my little while
            without a why
The chiseling of his craft away from maudlin elegy marks, in my view, the authority of Wiman’s spiritual endeavors. This soulful maturity is articulated in the penultimate stanza of the collection’s eponymous poem:
God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows…
That final instance of word-play sums it up: the fertile antinomy of a god abandoned by god; a god – thus abandoned – who can therefore be God, for us, riven as we are, inside our mortal coil, by privation, natural and moral.