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My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
192 pp., $24.00

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David Skeel


"The Edge of All We Know"

Christian Wiman's bright abyss.

Christian Wiman's new memoir begins and ends with the same four-line stanza from one of his uncompleted poems:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this

The two versions of the stanza, whose paradoxes (God as an abyss, believing nothing yet something) set the tone of the book's reflections, differ in only one respect. The first ends with a colon, the second with a period. The shift is subtle but momentous. It suggests that the unfinished poem has now been completed, but in a very unusual way: not with additional stanzas or the reciting of a traditional creed, but with every word in this dazzling book.

Wiman's story is well known in the poetry world. After growing up on the barren plains of West Texas, he set out to become a poet during his college years. "When I read Samuel Johnson's comment that any young man could compensate for his poor education by reading five hours a day for five years," Wiman wrote later, "that's exactly what I tried to do, practically setting a timer every afternoon to let me know when the little egg of my brain was boiled." This apprenticeship included four years bouncing around Europe, followed by a variety of teaching positions and two well-received books of poetry.

Then things took a radically different turn. Poetry, America's most prestigious poetry magazine, was suddenly flooded with money in 2002, thanks to a $200 million bequest from Ruth Lilly. After an intensive search for a new editor, the magazine's foundation chose Wiman. In this role he would instantly become one of the leading voices in American poetry. But winning a lottery is never an unmixed blessing. His days would be filled with the business side of poetry, and poets would constantly cozy up to him, hoping to win his favor, neither of which seemed to bode well for his own writing.

In 2005, Wiman learned that he has a mysterious, incurable cancer of the blood, which has meant ...

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