The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible
Walter Wangerin Jr.
He is the type to excavate words long buried beneath century-old grit and neglect—important words, vital words like scop, the word he once handed me that was important enough to shape only my entire life purpose. Scop, the one in ancient Greece who crossed the battlefield and recorded its story. The one who shaped, the one who told the story.
This weathered scop, Walter Wangerin Jr, known for Miz Lil, The Book of the Dun Cow and other marrow-of-the-bone works, has written again. The battlefield he’s crossing has been the field of prolonged cancer and pain and impending death.
For over a decade, this well-heeled writer and teacher/preacher has been walking this field, examining its every crevice. Diagnosed in 2005, Wangerin has had the time to examine the field well.
His new book of poetry, The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible, maps the topography of cancer. You’re suffering through the inevitable and inane cancer-easy-fix suggestions from church acquaintances? Read poem “Advice,” and learn that those irritating fixes come from someone’s “cancer of the character.”
Or for those with pain—or for those who love those with pain, the poem “Pain” where physical misery takes on free verse: “My throat’s a coal chute,/my stomach a scuttle./Marsh-bog crams the sausage casings of my bowels./I contain pain.”
The thin tome is poetry of witness although different from Carolyn Forche’s, where the pain comes from the hands of others. Instead, Wangerin’s poetry is the pain of one’s life being assigned an end date, of wrecked cells, of the vigilant scop watching, recording, mapping, praying.
In earlier musings about his cancer, Letters from the Land of Cancer—which won the Christianity Today Award of Merit, Wangerin lets us know what cancer has been to him: “It is a rooster’s crow, calling me to the truth of myself and to the precise condition of my relationships—God, society, nature.”
Snow and cancer make up the first two sections of The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible. And then the focus moves to poetry based on what Wangerin’s website calls, “the ancient Mesopotamian epic loosely known as The Songs of Heaven and Hell.” Similar images and themes tie the three sections together.
Wangerin has long carried the torch of lyrical fire. His dexterous writings that range from nonfiction to fantasy to children’s have been award-winning. In 1978, The Book of the Dun Cow won the National Book Award, and six other books of his forty have been awarded the Gold Medallion.
Poetry isn’t my wheelhouse—in teaching or writing. But The Absolute, Relatively Inaccessible gives me Wangerin again. Wangerin, the writer who shaped my thinking on so much like my vocation as a scop. Or like his Mourning into Dancing, that there are many, many small griefs held within the hands of a large grief.
This book of poems is for anyone mortal. Wangerin, the trustworthy truth teller, has told it—and now we have someone ahead of us on this journey. Cross the battlefield, and see.
Cynthia Beach is a long-time writing professor at Cornerstone University, whose latest contributions appear in Hope in the Mourning Bible (Zondervan) and The Horse of My Heart (Revell). She co-founded the two-day Breathe Christian Writers Conference. Currently she’s marketing her novel, The Seduction of Pastor Goodman.