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detail from the front cover of He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Wound Incarnate: Death, Art, and Immortality

A Review of He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

Jane Zwart

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“One either lives toward God or not,” writes Christian Wiman in his newest book, He Held Radical Light, and by the time this sentence appears, he has rounded up a fair number of witnesses to it. Most of them are poets. Many of them are reluctant to acknowledge the deity Wiman says their words tilt toward. A few, in fact, scorn religion outright. But God isn’t picky about authorial intent; he can inspire even a determined scapegrace to compose his praise.

The book opens with A. R. Ammons’s poem “City Limits,” which glories in the “gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped / guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit.” Next comes Jack Gilbert, who sets two fleets of beetles, large and small, to “disassembling” a corpse. Then Mark Strand, for whom daylight sanctifies “the worms and swarming flies at work” on “the rotting carcass of a skate.” Wiman first traces the reverence that gives several poems heavy on rot and bugs their iridescence. But even in the midst of that strange beauty, death remains, and forces readers to confront the fact that death accompanies their own lives too. After the first few pages the stench of decay lifts, but the book’s mortal urgency does not.

For its writer, that urgency is particular. His doctors have appraised it, tumor by tumor, since his late thirties. And you could count the ruthless, temporary remedies that Wiman has undergone, fending off a cancer with no cure, as another measure of the pressure that a sickness-unto-death exerts.

Even those of us who are well know what we owe death.

Most of us pay much subtler ransoms to mortality. If we’re lucky, we can ignore it as something that tarries in the hazy distance, thinking that death will swoop in to collect on our debt only once we’re old and stooped. Still, the debt is always there. Even those of us who are well know what we owe death. And sometimes, even in the midst of good health, we know it acutely.

However vague the terms of our promissory notes, all of us debtors have at least a passing acquaintance with the urgency that, according to Wiman, prods us toward art and faith. This urgency, he explains, “propels imagination forward. It makes us imagine heavens in which wounds are healed and losses restored, or helps us to ameliorate oblivions by imagining our atoms alive in other forms.” Or, if not “our atoms alive in other forms,” then our syllables re-sung by other voices.

Indeed, the author continues, “heaven and oblivion might have one name, which every poet, in one way or another, is trying to speak.” He Held Radical Light, then, is a book for all of us who have tried to plaster “heaven and oblivion” with our guesses and gessoes, with our elegies and theologies. It is for all us who have ever felt the impetus to do so – that mortal urgency; that plain, ungenerous truth that we will not always be here.

One of my favorite poems by Christian Wiman, “From a Window,” begins with that very truth. In its first two lines, the poet renders himself “incurable and unbelieving / in any truth but the truth of grieving.” Like that poem and Wiman’s other work, He Held Radical Light refuses to ignore “the truth of grieving.”

That is one of the virtues of this book. But, subtitled The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art, it also rejects the notion that art is any real recompense for grief. True, on occasion, art can wedge grief into a frame that makes both feel timeless. But anyone who can keep grief inside a frame, Wiman argues – anyone who lets poetry’s “flashes of insight harden into ‘knowledge’” – is playing both art and life false. “Poetry is not enough,” writes the poet, “and to make it an end rather than a means is not simply a hopeless enterprise but a very dangerous one.” As dangerous, I suppose, as any phony cure.

The god we keep on retainer, who is all milk and no fire, is not God.

So Wiman neither hawks art as a cure-all, nor does he peddle faith as an antidote to “the truth of grieving.” On the contrary, he contends that “to lower one’s god to the level of one’s need” is a species of despair. The god we keep on retainer, who is all milk and no fire, is not God. In My Bright Abyss, Wiman claims that “refusing heaven can be a form of faith if it’s done to give God his true and terrible scope.” In He Held Radical Light, he maintains, along with Jacques Maritain, whose words he borrows, that “infinity wounds the finite.” And the wound is very much the point, because without the cross there is no empty tomb.

We often shy away from this truth – that the joy of the resurrection depends upon the suffering of Christ. But Wiman reminds us that, like Christ, we must take on the “sacred weakness” that Maritain describes in the sentence surrounding the phrase Wiman borrows. The philosopher writes, “And nothing is more precious than a certain sacred weakness, and that kind of imperfection through which infinity wounds the finite.”

At their best, art and faith make us aware of the wound incarnate, the “sacred weakness” of an eternal God who entered our finite world. To be clear: neither a poem nor a theology can capture that God’s immortality. Both do possess, however, their own version of “sacred weakness.” Art and belief, after all, do defy gravity just a little. They leap in the direction of the eternal even as they fall short of it.

Take, by way of an example, the poem “My Stop is Grand” (included in Radical Light). In it, Wiman sees an El train taking a corner fast enough that it “screechingly peacocked / a grace of sparks.” That moment, holy, catapults out of the finite. But only momentarily. Inevitably, the sparks fizzle out and settle back on the tracks. And so it goes, whenever we human beings stretch in the direction of what is eternal.

Art and belief, therefore, prove vulnerable to both time and infinity. They are like dancers who – to borrow from Kierkegaard – leap upward, and then fall. Anchored in the finite but gesturing toward the infinite, they constantly remind us of their own, and our own, limitations.

No poem, no psalm, no song can pin down immortality.

The poem “From a Window” is instructive here too. The self at its beginning cannot use his art to solve or dissolve grief. And belief does not change that self’s diagnosis; he remains “incurable.” But the poem presses on, which is why, from his window, its mortal protagonist sees “a tree inside a tree / rise kaleidoscopically // as if the leaves had livelier ghosts … Of course I knew those leaves were birds.” The birds ascend, embodying “some excess / of life.” “That life,” ends the poem, “was not the life of men, / and that was where the joy came in.” That life that is “not the life of men” goes by other names, too, and one of them is immortality.

Like every other poem, “From a Window” comes up short. Its deft and arresting imagery can sketch the wound that infinity leaves on the finite, but it cannot hold infinity. And this is He Held Radical Light’s point: it is through, not in spite of, their shortcomings that art and faith hint at a mystery that exceeds our capacity to hope for it.

There is “a persistent, insistent mystery at the center of our existence.” Wiman writes. “This mystery is not, in any ultimate sense, explicable to anyone, but it is available to everyone who will not actively resist those moments when […] we cease to be ourselves and become, paradoxically, more ourselves.” Cease to be ourselves: that sounds worryingly like death. But it might also remind us of a certain passage: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it ...”

“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” Wiman asks. By way of an answer, he quotes Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, where one voice prays, “Lord, give us what you have already given.” And what has God already given? Not the next life, but this one, with an abundance that – if we let it – overspills the little canteens we call ourselves. It is this life, in other words, “where the joy [comes] in.” What art and faith, at their truest, clamor for isn’t not-death. It’s more life.

“One either lives toward God or not.” By the time I finished He Held Radical Light, I had puzzled out the echo I heard in that first sentence. It echoes another poet whom Wiman could have cited as an unintentional witness to that truth, Anne Sexton. Her last book, published the year after her suicide, is called The Awful Rowing Toward God.

As different as Sexton and Wiman may be, between both of these writers and God stands the same “toward,” crediting distance and banking on an irresistible trajectory to tow us in the direction of the “life that’s not the life of men.” In the direction of immortality, “that persistent, insistent mystery” centering our existence. In the direction of radical light.

And, yes, our art turns that radical light’s rays into spokes like kids, with the sun in mind and a yellow crayon in hand, do. And, yes, our faith holds a candle to the sun, but only a candle. No poem, no psalm, no song can pin down immortality, just as no theology can corner a “God too obvious and omnipresent to need that name.” Yet we would be wrong, Wiman says, to take that as a discouragement. That we mortals are not up to imagining what to anticipate from the eternal, even at our most wonderstruck, is manifest reason for hope.

front cover of He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman
Get the book: He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman
Contributed By Jane Zwart

Jane Zwart is the co-director of the Center for Faith & Writing at Calvin College, where she teaches English. She also writes poems, some of which have appeared in TriQuarterly, Antioch Review, Boston Review, Rattle, Poetry Northwest, and North American Review, as well as elsewhere. She's edited and published on-stage interviews with Christian Wiman, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Zadie Smith. Another of those conversations, this one with Amit Majmudar, is forthcoming in Image.

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