It is always good to encounter a good new writer. Christian Wiman, past editor of Poetry magazine, is not new to many people, but excerpts from his new book Ambition and Survival indicate a writer of subtlety and skill. His prose is packed with dense, unwinding sentences that capture his careful approach to faith as it coexists with doubt.
"At times I have experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am," he writes. He is unwilling to call this merely the unconscious. Rather a constant presence in his poems is God--or the absence of God. His sense of God while writing is akin to a famous (more positive) statement by Thomas Merton, which I have often quoted, about how he felt especially close to God in the act of writing, which was for him often prayerful.
Wiman goes on to make an important statement about seeing life as a whole; it is not only the insight of a man who has come through a cancer scare and a tentative return to churchgoing but one who has read and thought widely and deeply. There is wisdom in "learning to see our moments of necessity and glory and tragedy not as disparate experiences but as facets of the single experience that is life."
And, having read Simone Weil, he shares her view that suffering is at the center of our lives. Without dealing with pain and suffering, we do not deal with human reality. In an eloquent passage about making a truce with pain, he brings to mind (at least for me) the horrors of recent events, especially the killing of twenty children in Newtown and other horrors that live on in our collective psyche, especially when the news brings us stories of more school shootings.
There are, he writes, wounds we never completely get over. "Yet I have come to believe...that pain may be its own reprieve, that the violence that is latent is us may be...rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves...that there is hope for what Freud called 'normal unhappiness,' [giving] our lives a coherence" as we learn to live with our painful memories, and ourselves, "amid a truce that is not peace." (This is part of one long, complex sentence.)
Having dealt with the death of two neighbors this week, I have been thinking of how grief in families often goes on and on, sometimes for years; it is not something to which we can easily apply "closure." Christian Wiman deals with this reality with memorable wisdom.