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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dawn McGuire on Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival, and dying too young

The Aphasia Café
by Dawn McGuire
(IF SF Publishing, 2012)
Dawn McGuire, neurologist and poet, who recently published her third collection of poems, The Aphasia Café (IF SF Publishing), joins our continuing series of guest blog posts by writers of fiction, poetry, essays, and history with an appreciation of the prose of poet and critic Christian Wiman.
In an essay about the prose of poets, Christian Wiman writes, “In prose as in poetry, there is perhaps only one definite requirement for a vital style: it must make the reader feel that something is truly at stake.” Wiman’s prose can astonish, madden, take one’s breath, and sometimes break one’s heart. He is a gifted storyteller and a disciplined, self-made intellectual. On the basis of story, style, and swagger, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (2007), his collection of personal and critical essays, ranks as a great read; but what makes it vital is its compelling narrative arc: it describes the trajectory, not of an aesthetic, but of a theology. 
Wiman is perhaps best known for having been the editor of Poetry, the oldest American magazine of verse, since 2003. But achieving that esteemed post is not one of the three events—“each shattering in his own way”—that he chronicles in his book’s moving, closing essay, “Love Bade Me Welcome.” In fact, the collection can be rearranged into “before and after” 2005, the year of the final, life-changing event. Essays written before 2005 reveal Wiman as a Miltonic figure, zigging and zagging between a defiant purity about poetry, his only absolute, with a tendency just to “blow stuff up.”

Wiman’s verbal aggression in those years mirrored the crazed rages of his youth. In the dazzling memoir, “The Limit,” he continues to beat a boy long after winning the fight, even as the bones in his own hands are breaking. When he discovers that his father has been cheating on his mother, a teenaged Wiman hits him “squarely between the eyes” and continues to hit him—his father, ashamed, does not resist—“until the last blow is closer to a caress.”

This endnote of Eros infuses his critiques of poetry. He clearly adores Hart Crane, for example, even while relentlessly checking off the poet’s failures: overwritten, “weak-kneed rhapsodies,” sentimental mysticism, inconsistent control of form, bad form. Yet Crane offers him a failure he can love. Crane’s “unremitting intensity” and “doomed ambition” bear a strong family resemblance to Wiman’s own flaws, ones he confesses and acts out from.

At twenty Wiman decided to become a poet. “I loved [poetry] most of all for the contained force of its forms, the release of its music, and for the fact that, as far as I could tell, it had absolutely nothing to do with the world I was from.” Throughout his essays, and most particularly in “Finishes: on Ambition and Survival” (1995), Wiman tussles relentlessly with Form. Form’s mastery is what makes a poem durable, enduring, and—importantly for Wiman—able to outlast its creator. A poet who has met the challenge of finding her form might write five or six poems that can endure. Such a poet will be keenly intentional about style, keenly attuned to conventional forms and devices, even while resisting, reinventing them. It is only a rare poem that succeeds in finding its Form; such poems are perfect.

Finally, Form is a deeply spiritual trope; a way to contain and redeem the Fallen Man. Wiman wrestles with John Ruskin’s idea that “the more beautiful the art, the more it is essentially the work of people who feel themselves wrong.”

There is a sense in which all art emerges out of injury or absence, out of the artist’s sense that there is something missing in him, something awry or disturbed. . . . Art—or, to be more precise, form--is not only what enables artists to experience this sense of wrongness at all, which is their deepest being and will possess them one way or another, it is their only hope of wholeness and release.
Wiman believes he will write a perfect poem, and so become right with himself.

By the penultimate essay, “Free of Our Humbug: Basil Bunting” (2004), Wiman is on the threshold of middle age. Re-reading Bunting, a high-modern formalist whom Wiman admired in his twenties, turns out to be tedious at thirty-seven. He quotes Bunting: “All arts . . . are concerned only with form in the end.” To which Wiman replies: “Well, I don’t buy it—though I have long bought it, have even peddled these notions myself.”

What’s changed? Two of Wiman’s “shattering” events have occurred. In 2001 Wiman stopped writing poetry. In 2004 he found love, a deep, romantic love. In a suddenly and dramatically lit-up world, Form is a lesser god. His spiritual hunger now becomes manifest. To speak it plain: “I needed to thank somebody . . . and so I needed to pray.”

Then comes 2005, the eve of “after.” Less than a year into his marriage, on his thirty-ninth birthday, Wiman receives the diagnosis of a rare blood disease. While the disorder is unpredictable, his case is severe; he will likely die young. “Love Bade Me Welcome” tells how Wiman and his wife get the news. They mourn together for a long time, “not my death, exactly, but the death of the life we had imagined with each other.” They find themselves entering a church; an act which “before” would have given Wiman hives. “The first service was excruciating, in that it seemed to tear all wounds wide open, and it was profoundly comforting, in that it seemed to offer the only possible balm.” If this sounds familiar, it is because it is how Wiman conceived Form: that which enables both the experience of one’s wrongness and the hope of release.

The faith toward which Wiman turns is not that of his Baptist roots—an austere, earth- and body-denying tradition.

My experience has been just the opposite: a love of the earth and existence so overflowing that it implied, or included, or even absolutely demanded, God. Love did not deliver me from the earth, but into it.
He does not become evangelical; he does not even become more secure, or more comfortable in his skin. In his poem “2047 Grace Street” he writes, “I do not know how to come closer to God / except by standing where a world is ending / for one man.” He has seizures of doubt, and knows God perhaps most intimately through His absence. He will probably die young, and “just” be dead, for there is no solacing afterlife in Wiman’s faith. But doesn’t everyone, who fully engages the world, die “too young”?

For Wiman,“Faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.” This is probably why we can find a chemo-bald, slightly fragile Wiman “in the world,” talking about God with Bill Moyers. He speaks with simple clarity, without a hint of the distancing ironies, or the “willed immaturity” of his past. He sounds real, as in realized. This faith as movement toward the world is also “why” we find Wiman writing a different kind of poem, a masterpiece that is both profound and completely accessible. The poem takes place on a porch. It is a praise poem, for junk, a neighbor, the everyday. The mystery. It suggests how close God was all along. Just “Five Houses Down.”
In 2011 Dawn McGuire won the Sarah Lawrence/Campbell Corner Academy of Language Exchange Poetry Prize for "poems that treat larger themes with lyric intensity." About The Aphasia Café, Edward Tayler has written, “Dr. McGuire’s poems—and in their technical exactitude they are most emphatically poems, not clinical studies—touch us where we all live, on the edges of language where the “aphasic” moments we share lie just this side of intimate silence.” Her previous collections include Hands On (Creative Arts Book Company, 2002) and Sleeping in Africa (The Dog Ear Press, 1982). She is Adjunct Professor of Neurology at the Neurosciences Institute of Morehouse School of Medicine, and divides her time between Atlanta and Northern California.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters; American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom

1 comment:

  1. I rarely read reviews anymore, and certainly not reviews of essays about poetry. The writing in this review is the payoff and I appreciate the ways in which McGuire understands and ties together regions of the sacred (art and faith) through an almost and arc-filled narrative of Wiman's writing and life. It makes me want to read Christian Wiman's poetry and essays. And it makes we want to read McGuire.


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