Whose Words These Are: Christian Wiman’s “Wound of Being”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Christian Wiman. (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Christian Wiman didn’t plan it this way but his poetry is now entwined with his grave illness and his engagement with God and faith. He grew up in West Texas, amidst the “eyesore opulence” of his poem “Five Houses Down.” He’s lived all over the world, and is based now in Chicago as the editor of the ever-evolving, ever-provocative Poetry Magazine. Our conversation begins around his new book, Every Riven Thing:

Riven means broken, it means shattered or wounded or unhealed, and I think that notion is very important to me and my notion of God and of religion: that we are broken creatures, very broken creatures. And I don’t think of God as necessarily healing that brokeness as much as participating in it.

What disturbed me about these poems is that God is in a way thrust out of them, in fact there’s open contempt for the idea of heaven and the idea of some transcendent God. … I was greatly helped [to understand that feeling] when I came across a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a great twentieth century theologian. He said God calls us to be in the world without God, I’m mangling the quote somewhat but that’s the notion.

Christian Wiman tells me in conversation that he finds it difficult to write about God today, in a language of religion that has been so compromised that “even the word God is very difficult to use.” He considers many of the poems in this book to be sort of “anti-devotional devotional poems” that reveal faith even in their apparent repudiation of God. And though his own spiritual life is “very muddled,” Christian Wiman finds a clear expression of “credible belief” in his poetry.

… Our experience of God is in some way a fundamental experience of loneliness, there is some ultimate loneliness that we go into to experience God and yet paradoxically that intense lonely feeling eases itself, it answers itself in some way.

Christian Wiman in conversation with Chris Lydon, January, 2011.

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  • nother

    “he catpicked the avalanche of trash
    and fished some always fixable thing
    up from the depths.”

    I love that line from 5 Houses Down! I love art that evokes the grandeur of the working man. My favorite painter and painting is this one:
    And my favorite Seamus Heaney poem is “The Forge” Especially the last line: “To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.”

    All I know is a door into the dark.
    Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
    Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring,
    The unpredictable fantail of sparks
    Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water.
    The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,
    Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,
    Set there immoveable: an altar
    Where he expends himself in shape and music.
    Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,
    He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter
    Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows;
    Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and a flick
    To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.

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  • Mark Neveu

    Wiman’s recent infatuation with religion suggests to me that the seriousness of his illness has led him into a “there are no atheists in foxholes” traumatic stress conversion. When man looks in the abyss and realizes that only the emptiness of the abyss looks back at him, man’s post-traumatic stress at that realization can manifest itself as a coping mechanism – an invisible friend to make the darkness seem less frightful. I find that his poems invoking a divinity are like photos documenting his scars – painful to view and leaving me with a sense of pity for the depth of the scars on his psyche. He has become a poet with the thousand-yard stare.

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