I’m sitting in my morning chair, on a glassed-in balcony giving a wide view of the sky—intensely blue today, with only a few cloud-wisps. The sun, which earlier I saw rising, gradually strengthening its light, has started to melt the bloom of frost on the rooftops.
Beside me, a book I am reading in small doses, because it is so intense I have to keep stopping: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. This American poet was editor of Poetry for ten years; he now teaches at Yale Divinity School, and has written other books of poetry and prose. My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is, he says, “a mosaic,” made over seven years, as the cancer he’d been diagnosed with at thirty-nine “waxed and waned.” He didn’t intend to mention his illness, but realised that not including it would be dishonest as the book happened “in that shadow."
The book is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” but, as with all the best books, it can’t easily be summed up. It’s about being, or failing to be, or wondering what it means to be, “a believer,” and it's also about the deepest aspects of living, about creativity. Reviewers have praised its lyrical prose and the new way it approaches age-old questions; Casey N. Cep said "here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel...;" Marilynne Robinson called it "very lucid and not at all simple;" Jamie Quatro said the book "unlocked the universe for me;" and David Skeel says if Gerard Manley Hopkins "were transported to early-twenty-first century America, this is the kind of memoir he might have written..."
Wiman does mention Hopkins (whose writing I love), and also evokes him implicitly, as in the word "thingness" in this passage:
“Some poets—surprisingly few—have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness” and ramify beyond its own dimensions. Norman MacCaig: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass/And hang zigzag on hedges.”......[another example follows].
What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception. What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.
Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”
The “mysterious resonance between thing and language…that reveals a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see;” the way poetry seems to glimpse “something of reality as it truly is;” such hints and intuitions speak to us profoundly. Wiman gives us clarity at the edge of the ungraspable.
The sun is passing now behind the three tall trees, so its brightness is less direct, but the sky is still a most lovely blue. And speaking of blue, Blue Planet II is currently on television. This jaw-dropping series, a work of art, an experience, takes us into that other blueness, the ocean. In the second episode, we penetrated fathoms down, where all the blue is gone; there is no sunlight at all, so enormous is the mass of water above. And in the seabed there are ravines, deeper still. Yet in that underwater darkness there is more light, and life, than was ever thought possible: squids with luminous ink, eels sparkling like strings of Christmas lights; a fish with a transparent head, bulbous eyes buried inside it, gazing through the clear jelly.
We saw the sponge coral called Venus’s Flower Basket, a delicate white cup of openwork, with the complexity of lace. Inside its chamber, shrimp are living; as tiny larvae, they were swept in through the gaps, and they have grown there, safe from predators. They are now imprisoned, too big to get out again. However, their young escape through the weave, and so a new generation is dispersed.
This hidden world has been invisible to us until now, miles deep, below the waves. A reality we could not see, until the submersibles, with cameras and lights, penetrated the abyss, and revealed a hitherto unknown and yet real dimension.