A Review of
He Held Radical Light:
The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art
Reviewed by Obi Martin
Christian Wiman’s title for his most recent book He Held Radical Light comes from a poem by A.R. Ammons of the same name. Wiman writes that he lost his virginity of poetry readings to a reading by Ammons when he was an undergraduate, and that this experience was “probably more momentous and memorable than the other one.” He Held Radical Light, can be read as both a spiritual biography of Wiman’s adult life (as can practically all of his prose and poetry), and as interpretation of a series of poems. Wiman includes in He Held Radical Light, his own poetry and his wife’s, but the direction of the book is driven by three poems by Ammons, and tempered by a backdrop of darker, more fearful poems such as “Third Hour of the Night” by Frank Bidart or “Aubade” by Phillip Larkin.
In He Held Radical Light, Wiman discusses his ten years editing Poetry Magazine, his brain cancer and recover, and his marriage to Danielle Chapman, subjects familiar to readers of his other books. What Wiman has published is not by many standards a lot, but it is tightly woven, packed with relationships and references, and comfortable enough toward the edges of language’s ability of abstraction to reward meditative reading. A single, fast paced read through will yield enough flashes of insight to make the reader feel they have accomplished something worthwhile, but there is too much insight in this book to take away in an academic or metro reading. On the other hand, there is something to be gained from reading He Held Radical Light in a single sitting as a self-contained essay, as many of Wiman’s questions and references are fragmented, building upon each other between the chapters.
The first of Ammon’s poems that Wiman includes, is “City Limits” which begins “When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold/itself but pours its abundance without selection into every/nook and cranny not overhung or hidden.” Though the book opens with metaphorical light, in true post-modern form, the absence of God plays as strong a part in Wiman’s faith as does any perception of God’s presence. Following Abraham Heschel, he defines “faith as primarily a faithfulness to a time when we had faith” (34). Unfaithfulness, like the overhung and hidden crannies then, is primarily a refusal to be faithful to the times in which we had faith. A traditional definition of faithfulness might stress the constancy implied in the term, but Wiman writes, “the word God is of course an abyss, bright or dark depending on the day” (83). Perhaps the one cardinal sin for Wiman is settling, settling on the side of self, short of either oblivion or God. “There is no middle ground, no cautious agnosticism in which to settle, no spiritual indifference that is not, even when accompanied by high refinement and exquisite intelligence, torpor” (83).
Against some faithful and authentic commitment to oblivion that Wiman reads into poems about death by Mary Oliver and Jack Guilbert, he finds more substance and texture of faith in “Hymn”, another poem by Ammons. Though in his prose Ammons’ professes to not believe in God, yet in “Hymn” the radiance of something like faith is given. The poem is counterpointed by inversions which form paradox: “I know if I find you I will have to leave the earth/ and go on out/…into the unseasonal and undifferentiated stark//And I know if I find you I will have to stay with the earth/inspecting with thin tools and ground eyes/…and if I find you I must stay here with separate leaves.” Both the hostility of “unseasonal and undifferentiated stark” and the sundering of “separate leaves” imply death, yet an inexplicable hope burns through.
Reminiscent of the nooks and crannies not overhung or hidden in “City Limits”, the third Ammons poem opens:
He held radical light
as music in his skull: music
over ridges immanences of evening light
back over the furrows of his brain
into the dark, shuddered.
Though versed in the poetry and poetic theory of a remarkably large canon of English writers, Wiman’s readings of poetry find their grounding primarily in life rather than in literature. As one result, his interpretations become illuminated by his own biographical details, and he locates within his own life elements of the poem he is reading. An image from this poem, “wrestling to say, to cut loose/from the high unimaginable hook” Wiman says defined his early forties, “in love and near death” (98).
For Wiman the “high unimaginable hook” is something like the angst toward reality that drives the artist to attempt a reordering of reality in representation. It is spiritual unrest, driving from and straining the core of a person, a “long, sharp, and never-quite-namable existential predicament” (100). Wiman writes, “If I say the hook is God, will only believers understand me? If I say the hook is the Void, will only atheists understand me?” (100).
The central resistance in He Held Radical Light, is to either enslaving the suffering of the hook within projects of self, or self-destructing in the face of it. The hook is both “God and Void, both grace and pain,” and must remain so (100). The hunger of human suffering is other than what art can satisfy, and the appetite either learns this or consumes itself. “The poem is means not end. When art becomes the latter, it eventually acquires an autonomous hunger of its own” (39). The hunger that Wiman is referencing here is from his reading of Bidart’s poem “Third Hour of the Night”: “Understand that it can drink till it is/sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied//it alone knows you. It does not wish you well.”
Through sickness and love, and a nearness to death made more terrible a nearness to love, Wiman searched for a “middle course between vision and will, some way of productively harnessing rather than suffering or enslaving one’s spiritual turmoil” (75). An open yet lyrical terror of death in a poem like “Aubade” by Phillip Larken, as well as the revelation of love that “revelation can be shared” allowed Wiman to accept the mystery of “when self and all it suffers are finished” (100, 69). As to the awareness and acceptance of end, Wiman writes “resurrection is a fiction and a distraction to anyone who refuses to face the reality of death” (66). Art can be an avenue into life, but it cannot be a replacement. It can be an avenue into faith, but it cannot be an end. The transcendence that is possible in art occurs in the acceptance of its own end as means, or lens for seeing past oblivion.