Seven years ago, Texas-born poet Christian Wiman learned he had cancer — a rare and unpredictable blood cancer, Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, for which there is no known cure. Wiman received the initial diagnosis during the first year of his marriage … on his 39th birthday … over the phone … while at work … over voicemail.
“Isn’t that amazing?” says Wiman, still humbled by the coldness of it all. “My doctor left the message on a Thursday … and then I couldn’t reach him! … I couldn’t get back to him till Monday. All I knew was that he’d told me I had lymphoma. But that’s a pretty broad diagnosis.”
Since that day, Wiman has come to know pain — and the prospect of his own mortality — with a kind of awesome, awful immediacy. At the same time, he has gone deeper into writing, into poetry, into spiritual reflection. He’s also produced the most meaningful work of his life, writing that gets to the heart of rot and rage, God and grace, death and joy.
“I wasn’t able to write about joy until I got sick,” says Wiman, speaking from his home in Chicago, in advance of his visit to Texas on Thursday and Friday for two readings sponsored by Texas State University in San Marcos. “It wasn’t that sickness brought joy. It’s made me much more conscious of how much joy was in my life and gave me some impetus to articulate it.”
Wiman’s artistry is most evident in “Every Riven Thing” — a book of poetry (published in 2010, frequently cited as one of the best books of American poetry in the past decade) that depicts the ragged, determined journey through cancer, through brokenness, with an eye toward God. It’s muscular. It’s musical. It longs for God, reaches out to God. And it is never afraid to be afraid. He writes: “I do not know how to come closer to God / except to be standing where a world is ending / for one man … ”
Wiman has a book of prose coming out this month, too: “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.” Here, Wiman lays bare his hunger to know God. It is earnest, intellectual, theological, critical and self-critical, fascinated with Christian paradox, infused with the desire to find new ways to talk about God — and electric with the understanding that Wiman may not have long to live.
“I think for most of us — for me certainly — God comes as an annihilating silence,” writes Wiman, “a silence we must endure as well as enjoy.”
The waiting room
The keywords of “Every Riven Thing”:
Waste. Rot. Wind. Wound. Grief. God. Nothing.
The word “cancer” never appears in these poems, which deal with loss in so many forms: a country café, a beloved aunt, compassion as an American ideal. Yet cancer is usually lurking behind the words, somewhere.
It’s certainly present in “Darkcharms,” a poem that allows us to rub shoulders with the cancer patients — “alive together, alone together” — in hospital waiting rooms. These brothers and sisters have come to know complicated, paradoxical truths about cancer, pain, treatment, separation.
Philosophy of treatment regimens, scripture of obituaries:
heretic, lunatic, I touch my tumor like a charm.
“That poem is still very painful for me,” says Wiman, who underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2011 and has felt himself near death several times despite countless rounds of chemotherapy. “Over the last couple of years, I’ve been there (in those rooms) day after day, sitting and waiting for your tests.”
Animate iron, black junk, seared feelerless, up crawls
my cockroach hope, lone survivor of the fire I am
For the lonely
For the past decade, Wiman has served as editor-in-chief of Poetry magazine. The magazine has flourished during his tenure — winning some National Magazine Awards for literary excellence, tripling its subscriptions and championing a provocative spirit.
“I saw my job as being about helping other people, other poets, particularly young poets, because I know what it’s like,” says Wiman, who leaves the magazine in June to join the faculty of the Yale Divinity School. “Poetry is such a lonely activity, you know. The world doesn’t care if you write poems. And you don’t get much reaction. You can write for years — decades, really — in the dark without getting any kind of reaction.
“So to reach out to a handful of people whose work you think really deserve attention, and to lift up their work has been something I really value.”
Wiman grew up in West Texas, the town of Snyder. You can feel the Western wind in his poetry, even in his earliest poems. In “Every Riven Thing,” the wind is an active agent. It blows things down. It guides our eye. “It seeks and sings every wound in wood” of the half-abandoned house that is his cancer-body. There are references to flues, tumbleweeds, turbulence, even the winds of war. When the blowing stops — and stillness comes — Wiman guides our eye to meaning.
From “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud”:
O my life my war in a jar
I shake you and shake you
and may the best ant win
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
Aching body, aching earth
Wiman is conscious of his illness, the cancerous blood within his body. Yet there are poems and passages in “Every Riven Thing” that reference the aching earth, the poisoned blood of our environment. Did cancer make him more attuned to the bad blood that has polluted the planet?
“It’s possible,” says Wiman, a former Paisano literary fellow who lived in Austin briefly — and wrote guest reviews for the American-Statesman — in the early 1990s. “I’ve always been conscious of it. I grew up attached to the land. … I spent a lot of time hunting, being outside. … I grew up with the sense that land was available. You never thought of water as being poisoned.
“Now when I go back, the water is poisoned. And here in Chicago, it’s terrible. I am very conscious of it, but I didn’t make the connection so explicitly until afterwards. One thing when you get sick: You feel the cells of yourself become apprehensible to you. You could actually feel them. It’s as if you could actually feel them. And you feel the way in which you are a part of the earth, and near earth, and on your way back to earth. You do become more connected to earth in that time.”
Anguish and prayer
My God my grief forgive my grief tamed in language
to a fear that I can bear.
Make of my anguish
more than I can make. Lord, hear my prayer.
– From “This Mind of Dying.”
To live in time
Wiman’s book of prose, “My Bright Abyss,” is presented in short, quick bursts, rich with lovely sentences and taut explanations. “Faith is nothing more — but how much this is — than a motion of the soul toward God,” he writes. “It is not belief. Belief has objects — Christ was resurrected, God created the earth — faith does not.
“Even the motion of faith is mysterious and inexplicable: I say the soul ‘moves’ toward God, but that is only the limitations of language. It may be God who moves, the soul that opens for him. Faith is faith in the soul. Faith is the word ‘faith’ decaying into pure meaning.”
Wiman embraces Christianity, connects with Jesus’ cry of “‘Why hast thou forsaken me,” despite reservations about the resurrection. “I don’t know what it means to say that Christ ‘died for my sins,’ (who wants that? who invented that perverse calculus?),” he writes. He makes a case for Christian mysticism. He mourns the suppression of women’s insight in the framework of religion. He suggests unacknowledged belief is more perilous than disbelief. “It is not that conventional ideas of an afterlife are too strange;” he writes, “it is that they are not strange enough.”
Wiman calls “My Bright Abyss” a meditation. Sometimes, however, it feels more like a sword fight. Wiman taking on Yeats, Rilke, Wallace Stevens. Wiman taking on Wiman. Paradox, drifting into pretzel logic. Although Wiman is gentle, relaxed, easygoing in interviews — with Bill Moyers, or NPR’s Krista Tippett — his prose suggests a more rigorous internal struggle. Sometimes, as Wiman reaches high into the sky of intellectualism, one can imagine Huston Smith smiling in a glade and letting the sun caress his face.
“I waste too much time in the little lightless cavern of my own mind,” Wiman confesses at one point. He’ll chide himself on occasion for his “endless, useless urge to look at life comprehensively.”
Sometimes, the book has an urgency that spins it outside the discipline of structure, its outline, its focus. But it is always deep, earnest, electric in its immediacy.
“God calls to us at every moment, and God is life, this life,” Wiman writes early in the book, foreshadowing the end. “Radical change remains a possibility within us right up until our last breath. The greatest tragedy of human existence is not to live in time, in both senses of that phrase.”
Christian Wiman will read, discuss and sign his work at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Alkek Library on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos. He’ll be at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center in Kyle at 7:30 p.m. Friday.