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    Love Which May Curse

    A review of Survival Is a Style by Christian Wiman

    Jane Zwart

    February 19, 2020
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    Poetry Magazine’s first issue of 2020 opens with three poems from Christian Wiman’s latest book, and each is brilliant – no surprise there. What did surprise me is that I loved these three poems less apart from the rest of Survival Is a Style.

    Isolated from Wiman’s new volume, these three poems huddle together oddly, looking more like a clique than they are.

    Set in this small group, for instance, the first of the three – “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs” – stands out for its cutting observations: “One man marries a woman twenty years younger / and twice in one brunch uses the word verdant;” “the days [that] have daggers,  … the mirrors [that have] motives.”

    But “All My Friends Are Finding New Beliefs” reads more as wryly mocking, less as fondly perplexed when it appears without preamble on a magazine’s first page. It may also sound more derisive because of the poem that follows, “Mild Dry Lines: An Exchange.” Here two intellects fence with one another, but their sparring is too cerebral, too far removed from any feeling for the stakes of blood or life or love. Taken together, the two poems might invite readers to wink conspiratorially at a caustic Wiman, missing the sincere urgency with which “All My Friends” ends:

    the planet’s turning faster and faster in the blackness,
    and my nights, and my doubts, and my friends,
    my beautiful, credible friends.

    These lines give the poem its heart. Yes, its sorrow is barbed, but its ache is undeniably a symptom of love.

    Similarly, the gorgeous final lines of the poem “Even Bees Know What Zero Is” read differently following the stalemate “Mild Dry Lines” arrives at. Wiman writes:

    I’m done, I tell you, I’m due, I’m Oblivion’s datebook.
    I’m a sunburned earthworm, a mongoose’s milk tooth,
    a pleasure tariff, yesterday’s headcheese, spiritual gristle.
    I’m the Apocalypse’s popsicle. I’m a licked Christian.

    Separated from the rest of Survival Is a Style and positioned as the last of three poems, these lines read like a conclusion, like surrender. They are not. Or, rather, they constitute the kind of conclusion that Wiman regularly arrives at, then overturns (see his memoir My Bright Abyss for ample evidence of this pattern). They constitute the kind of surrender that is both a renunciation of God, predicated on his absence, and an assent to God, since that absence belongs, irrevocably, to him.

    There is also this: real despair doesn’t coruscate like these four lines.

    None of which is to say that Wiman’s new volume of poems, taken whole, lacks for darkness or sharp edges. It has plenty of both. Wiman has a keen eye for posturing, for pettiness; he has a keen eye for absconding deities. But his attention, even at its most cutting, is a species of love. This book, consequently, needs its shards and gibes; short of them, the writer could not reflect the light by which he attends to the miraculous and disappointing world. Short of its bitter laughter, Survival Is a Style could not do love’s work.

    Love’s Work, by the way, is the title of the British philosopher Gillian Rose’s final book, and Wiman quotes it at length in Survival Is a Style’s one prose poem:

    This sureness of self, which is ready to be unsure, makes the laughter at the mismatch between aim and achievement comic, not cynical; holy, not demonic. This is not love of suffering, but the work, the power of love, which may curse, but abides. It is power to be able to attend, powerful or powerless; it is love to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet.

    The full excerpt is longer, ninety-three of the poem’s 240 words – almost its last third. The poet might yield so much to the philosopher’s voice for several reasons.

    Partly, I suspect, it is in recognition of Rose’s purgative, purgatorial suffering that Wiman does not add another word to her bitter laughter or interrupt the quiet that she, having died in 1995, can no longer rescind. His quiet, that is, honors her particular pain, her irreplaceable self. But Wiman, I’d wager, also recognizes Rose in this sense: her story is not unfamiliar. She possessed a brilliance, like his, vibrating with holy ambivalences. And her body, like his, incubated an incurable cancer. (Wimans rare blood disease has been in remission for some years.)

    Then again, Wiman might have let Rose take over this poem for stylistic reasons. Rose’s words, after all, hardly sound borrowed. Her cadence resembles the poet’s, especially in its doubling. Obvious antonyms (“holy” and “demonic”) reflect backward, illuminating less overt opposites (“comic” and “cynical”). Paradoxical diptychs enter in: sureness characterized by its “read[iness] to be unsure”; “the power of love, which may curse, but abides.” And then there is that playfulness with which Rose expands the dark, drawing “purgatively” into “purgatorially.” Rose’s writing here and Wiman’s prose (in My Bright Abyss and He Held Radical Light, for example) have much in common.

    More than any resonance of biography or style, though, what earns these sentences from Love’s Work their place in the middle of Survival Is a Style is this: they capture the book’s entire apologetic.

    In its most immediate context, the prose poem imports from Rose a defense against the accusation that gives its title, “A Heresy” – an accusation flung at Wiman during a Q & A. In the first part, Wiman asserts that the most flagrant heresies crop up when we presume to read God’s mind, when we try to corner him with our belief. (The same avowal shapes the book’s “Epilogue,” in which the writer edges toward a divinely appointed “brink / wherein to have more faith means having less.”) Rose’s words, in kind, insist that our certainties about a holiness we cannot hope to plumb are blasphemous.

    Thus, on a human scale, the “love, which may curse, but abides” articulates Wiman’s strain of reverence. Rote adoration he writes off as profanity. Meanwhile, he tries and fails to take God’s name in vain in such poems as “Good Lord the Light,” which begins

    Good morning misery,
    goodbye belief,
    Good Lord the light

    But the dirge turns to a joy that refuses to be refused. Witness the next stanza:

    There is an under, always,
    through which things still move, breathe,
    and have their being,
    quick coals and crimsons
    no one need see
    to see.

    Not only “In Good Lord the Light,” though, does this complicated oath play out – the curse that curves toward praise, toward the sacred “under, always” that abides. Indeed, the Via Negativa – in which “he names his love by naming what he hates” – is one of Wiman’s “Ten Distillations” for a reason.

    But the poet’s oath – the work of his love – makes up so little of the covenant, really.

    In his painfully beautiful “Parable of Perfect Silence,” Wiman writes, “The love of God is not a thing one comprehends / but that by which – and only by which – one is comprehended.” Pair that truth with the assertion in “Epilogue” that “love’s the sacred name for loneliness” and you will see Wiman’s predicament: he experiences the love of God as an absence made acutely present, and that abyss is not altogether bright.

    Survival Is a Style, then, also translates the “work of love, which may curse, but abides” into an apologetic for the fact that it traces the chiaroscuro of the abyss. It is an apology for its writers laughing “bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially.” Perhaps the poet is also apologizing in the ordinary sense – confessing remorse – because “the one abundance [he] can trust is lack.”

    But in the abundant lack of white space on the page, in the silences around these poems, another oath plays out, and it is “the work of love” on a divine scale. Indeed, around the edges of Wiman’s words, we find Pascal’s “God-shaped vacuum” made vivid by his words.

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    Contributed By

    Jane Zwart teaches English at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Rattle, Cincinnati Review, Threepenny Review, and TriQuarterly, as well as other journals and magazines.

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