Every-so-often, I read something that brings my whirling monkey mind to a dead halt. Savory tastes of masterful writing roll across the folds of my brain, like the layered flavors of a fine wine. When art addresses themes of life and love with fresh variations, I reach for my highlighter. If the author’s thoughts are rich, puzzling or challenging, I read again and again, pen in hand. Messy scribbles crowd the printed words with annotation, arrow, star, bracket and checkmark, my humble attempt to take the author’s journey, in this case, without paying the price.
Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine, has cancer in the bone marrow of his legs, one shoulder and his face. Pain often ‘islands’ and shrinks him into hospital moans. He will die an early death. And yet, into Wiman’s grim reality comes beauty and meaning. In “Mortify Our Wolves” published in the Fall issue of The American Scholar, the title from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, Wiman describes works of art by Lee Bontecou, her early pieces all having holes, black space, little abysses of nothing. Wiman recognizes the fluidity between life and death, that hole, a wound “…that, like a ramshackle house on some high exposed hill, sings with the hard wind that is steadily destroying it.” And sing he does.
Wiman writes of his love for his wife and young twin daughters and asks the questions on many people’s minds. “How could you bring children into a situation so precarious? How could you seed them with this grief?” Seeing his daughters picking flowers, kissing, laughing, running, playing, he and his wife ask: “How could we not have had them? How could they not be? How could such life, such love, ever have remained latent and dormant within us?” How could Wiman bring his children into the grief of his loss?
Wiman is a Christian, not he says for the usual reasons (belief in the resurrection, ultimate truth, religion of his youth), but because of his suffering. “I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life…” Speaking to his daughters, who will most likely grow up with black holes instead of a father, Wiman writes, “Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love many enter us…” and in all “…there burns the abiding love of God.”
I am humbled by Wiman’s experience of suffering and love, by the meaning he has internalized and put into practice with others in his life. I am humbled by his perspective and faith. I am humbled by mortality.