HE HELD RADICAL LIGHT
The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art
By Christian Wiman
114 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.
With all the stonings, smitings, beheadings and bear maulings in the Bible, it is easy to miss the rather staid death of Eutychus. As recounted in the Book of Acts, the young man nods off during a long sermon by St. Paul, and falls three stories from a window in Troas. In a reprieve for dozing parishioners everywhere, Paul resurrects him.
Poor Eutychus comes and goes in only a few verses, but I thought of him while reading the poet Christian Wiman’s curious new book, “He Held Radical Light” — not because it’s in danger of putting anyone to sleep, but because, like Acts, it’s an episodic account of equally strange encounters, in this case, with apostles of verse. A. R. Ammons shows up for a reading in Virginia but refuses to read, telling his audience, “You can’t possibly be enjoying this”; Seamus Heaney winks before stepping into a cab in Chicago; Donald Hall orders a burger for lunch, then confides to Wiman, who was then 38: “I was 38 when I realized not a word I wrote was going to last”; Mary Oliver picks up a dead pigeon from the sidewalk, tucks the bloody carcass into her pocket and keeps it there through an event and after-party.
Wiman had met a few poets by the time he finished college at Washington and Lee and completed a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, but he really started to collect them at Poetry magazine, where he was editor for 10 years. The most straightforward version of those years would be a literary tell-all, along the lines of the former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb’s “Avid Reader.” But “He Held Radical Light” is something else: a collection of private memories, literary criticism and theology, plus an eccentric anthology of poems Wiman holds dear, all drawn into an argument about art and faith.
When he finds Mary Oliver in her hotel lobby, she’s reading “The Faerie Queene.” “I want to spend what time I have left with masterpieces,” she says, and the sentiment seems to have been contagious. The poems Wiman has chosen are almost all gorgeous, and he explicates them gorgeously. He doesn’t bother with the obligatory details of biography; we learn about the poets evocatively, from whatever odd angle they crossed his path. Nor is his own life much on display. Readers who want to know about his teaching career, spiritual practices or his near death from cancer will need to look elsewhere, including in his tremendous memoir, “My Bright Abyss.”
In that book, as in his own poetry, Wiman is fixated on what he calls here “those moments of mysterious intrusion, that feeling of collusion with eternity.” Such intrusions are real for Wiman and for many readers of poetry, though his attempt to marshal them in service of a grander theory about the inherent holiness of art will probably not persuade anyone who is not already devout or devoted to poetry. His strengths aren’t as a theologian but as a critic, and he is expert at identifying the exact image or lines where a poet has wrestled eternity onto the page.
It’s hard to sustain a series of “moments” like that for very long, but Wiman’s gratitude for them, and humility before them, makes this brief book strangely powerful. He marvels at the divine radiance pouring “into every / nook and cranny not overhung or hidden” in Ammons’s “The City Limits,” and lapses into the language of an excited teenager when pointing out that Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” can give readers “serious ice in their spines.” He admires how his friend Craig Arnold makes eating a grapefruit — “a little basketball / for breakfast” — a meditation on more existential appetites. He notices when Denise Levertov turns “the cure of souls” into “A Cure of Souls,” an article substitution that transforms the priestly office into “one of those oddities of biological nomenclature like a shrewdness of apes or a crash of rhinos.”
These are achievements of attention, and by gathering so many of them here Wiman trains us to look for them elsewhere. If it were only those close readings, “He Held Radical Light” would be a textbook; instead, the real joy is how beautifully it melds intellectual labor with humane fellowship, refusing to forget the flesh that made the words. Even the most transcendent art arrives via the transient vessels known as artists, and Wiman knows how to bring both to life on the page.
Casey N. Cep’s first book, “Furious Hours: Harper Lee and an Unfinished Story of Race, Religion, and Murder in the Deep South,” will be published next year.