Interview by Jane Zwart
"Every Single Thing in You Has to Bow Down"
Christian Wiman is the author of four books of poems (most recently, in 2014, Once in the West), a collection of essays, and a book called My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (also published in 2014). In addition, he has translated a selection of poems by Osip Mandelstam. Wiman was the editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2013. He is senior lecturer in religion and literature at Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
Many people will already know that about eight years ago, your life changed radically in a number of ways. You've talked in My Bright Abyss and elsewhere about meeting and marrying your wife; about returning to Christianity; about receiving a diagnosis of a cancer that is unpredictable and incurable; and about beginning to write poems again, after a long silence. One of the things that struck me in reading your books sequentially, then, is that the more recent poetry—on this side of those radical changes—often echoes your early poetry. For example, there's that early, long poem, "The Long Home," where the speaker is your grandmother, ventriloquized through you. She talks about the anguish of having had many miscarriages and then your father's birth. The lines there read:
I've twice delivered silence.
When my one son came crying free of me,
I closed my eyes and praised God. I praised the pain.
Over and over in that humid room
I breathed his name.
Then there's your relatively recent poem, "One Time," which includes the words "Praise to the pain / scalding us toward each other." What do you make of that echo—of that chiasmus, maybe? Or of others like it? What does such repetition say about your work or your return to faith?
That seems to me astute—although I don't really think of myself as having returned to Christianity; rather, I think of myself as having assented to a faith that was latent in me, as finally assenting. But ...