#17: Christian Wiman 2016
Feeling Life Intensely, July 22, 2017
Poet Christian Wiman reads poems about kestrels, steamrollers, love in austere forms, banqueting on oblivion, commuter trains, and kissing daughters goodnight. Between poems, Wiman reflects on feeling most intensely the life you failed to feel and being called to unbelief as a stage of faith. To remember the late Bret Foster, Wiman reads one of Foster’s poems, and also honors the work of Russian modernist poet Osip Mandelstam. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and Calvin Center for Faith and Writing Co-Director Jane Zwart.
- Christian Wiman,
- Hammer Is the Prayer
- Once in the West
- Every Riven Thing
- The Long Home
- Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam
- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
- Christian Wiman,
- “Believing Green”
- “For D”
- “My Stop Is Grand”
- “Poem Ending With a Sentence from Jacques Maritain”
- “Good Lord the Light”
- “Gone for the day, she is the day”
- Brett Foster, “The Tongue is the Pen”
- Osip Mandelstam,
- “Night Piece”
- “Heads Over”
- “And I Was Alive”
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00]Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I’ll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we’ve had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you’ll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio features Christian Wiman, reading old and new work at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing. A poet, translator, editor, and essayist, Christian Wiman is the author of numerous books, including the poetry collections Once in the West, Every Riven Thing, and The Long Home, and the essay collections My Bright Abyss: Meditation Of A Modern Believer and Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet. He was the editor of Poetry magazine for ten years, and is currently on faculty at the Yale Divinity School.
Jane Zwart introduced Christian at the 2016 Festival. Jane is a professor of English at Calvin College, co-director of the Calvin Center of Faith & Writing, and an accomplished poet herself. We talked a little bit about what makes Wiman’s work so compelling.
Lisa: [00:01:27] So Jane, where did I find you today?
Jane Zwart: You found me in your own orange chair in your office.
Lisa: [laughs] Excellent, that’s super convenient, I appreciate it.
Jane: No problem.
Lisa: Thanks for coming in to talk about Christian Wiman today.
Jane: Of course.
Lisa: You, of course, have—he was at the 2016 Festival, he’s been at the Festival in the past as well—and you’ve been reading his work for many years. What first introduced, or what was the first, kind of, introduction to his work, or what got you into him?
Jane: Yeah, the first thing I read by him was his long poem from his first collection called The Long Home, and I happened upon it just because I was looking for a longer poem to teach in a literature class, and I had looked at a number of kind of interconnected poems by some other writers; one collection that was really beautiful called Ultima Thule. But I wanted something that had, kind of, more of a narrative arc, and I read it and I just loved it. Partly because of the conceit of the poem; so it’s all told in his grandmother’s voice—
Lisa: Oh wow.
Jane: And so there’s this kind of interesting ventriloquism going on, but it’s also, I mean you can feel his fondness for her, and his compassion for what she had lost and found and her sense of place throughout the whole thing. And in that poem, too, there’s this faith, but it’s a faith that he would tell you he hadn’t assented to himself yet. So, I find that, you know, in retrospect, a really interesting piece.
Lisa: Well, speaking of faith, at the beginning of this recording that we’re going to listen to, he will read several of his own poems, but he starts talking about Bret Foster, who’s a poet who had most recently had been teaching at Wheaton College, who died, just not long before the 2016 Festival. Wiman and Foster had met at Stanford, I think, maybe they were both Stegners at the same time? And he talks about the jolt he felt when meeting Bret, and how he wasn’t sure what that was but later came to understand it as related to his own Christian faith, and that they all, kind of, can seek with themselves as radicals in various ways, and it took them a while to realize that Bret was the true radical. So it’s interesting, he’s often been, I think, kind of compelled by faith in various people’s lives; there are examples of it.
Jane: Yeah, absolutely. And, I think, too, that’s, you know, part of both of them, as poets, they both have such generosity to other poets. So even for Chris to do, at the beginning, that sort of moment of tribute to Bret—he said yes without hesitating, and, you know, often when he reads he reads another poet’s work—
Lisa: Which he does in this session as well.
Jane: Absolutely, yeah. But also, I think both of them have in common this sort of understanding of joy as both irrepressible and also difficult, sometimes difficult to come by, and sometimes even difficult to know what to do with, I think.
Lisa: In this session in particular, I think that one of the things you hear in the poems that he reads is this kind of resistance, at times, and one of the things he seems to be resisting, at times, is an idea that joy is dead, or that, that’s just not an alive thing in the world anymore. And you see this resistance in various ways, throughout his work. Maybe resistance to the notion that death is the end, or you know as he’s dealt with his own mortality and his own cancer, and I wonder if that’s something that you’ve seen in his work kind of consistently throughout—well, it’s to complicate things, it seems like.
Jane: [00:05:15] Yeah, absolutely. And I think both in the direction you’re talking about, right, to take a sort of cynical stance and show where the kind of gaps in it are. I think there’s some poems where he tries to begin in a more dismissive place, and can’t quite sustain it, right? Which is really beautiful. But at the same time, I think, he’s also really quick not to want sort of the pat or trite version of religious consolation that sometimes people respond to suffering with. And I think both of those things play out in the poetry and in the reading as well.
Lisa: Yeah, for sure. And something to that becomes more, that you can hear in the reading, is his attention to cadence. So, I mean that happens if you’re reading something, you know, your access to the cadence is a little bit mitigated via what you’re imagining. But hearing him read his own work, you really hear how he imagines the sound and how important that is, how important the cadence is to the work.
Jane: Yeah, absolutely. And, I think that kind of attentiveness, right, not only to sound but to visual images and to the sort of quirks of other people’s ways of being in the world is something that comes through in his poetry throughout, right? There’s this real attentiveness there.
Lisa: Sure. Speaking with attentiveness and quirks though, you can hear in the recording, there’s a couple times where he’s, like, missing his book, or something. And I know you were hosting him while he was here, you introduced the session and then were hosting him. And—remind me what happened—you had to like go kind of run to grab different things.
Jane: Yeahhhh. Yeah, so I finished introducing Chris and he very graciously said, “Thank you so much,” and then added, “but I have forgotten my book.” And I was like, “Okay,” he’s like, “It’s in the green room.” So I just said, “All right, stall a minute and I’ll go get it for you.” [laughs] So that was no big deal, I went; it was right on the top, I handed it to him from out of his briefcase, and then I went to go sit down in the audience with the FAC, which, you know, is at a different level, so down there—
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jane: And then, as he was getting toward the end of the reading, he was gonna do some new work, and realized that he did not have the folder in which he had stored this new work. And so he said that from stage, and said, “Oh, well, perhaps I’ll just try to do it from memory,” and he does have this incredible memory, right? He has all of these poems by heart, I think, in the deepest sense of that phrase, but, I heard that, and I was like “Well, it’s gotta be in his briefcase”—
Lisa: [laughing] And you’re like, “I know where that’s at!”
Jane: So I zoomed out from the FAC and around the back and into the green room, and then when there was this pause, before he started doing the poem, I brought the briefcase in, sort of sheepishly, and just set it next to him, and everyone clapped! And so, I was just like “Okay,” and I gave the audience the big thumbs up and ran away as fast as I could. But it was funny because in the intro I had made this big point that nothing is lost on Wiman, pointing to this kind of attentiveness and so on, and he quipped that his wife would disagree with that, and following the session I think that she is absolutely right! So yeah, here’s a shout out to another great poet, Danielle Chapman, Wiman’s wife, and her right sense of—
Lisa: [laughing] Her own attention to detail.
Jane: —her husband’s tendency to lose things.
Lisa: [laughing] Awesome. Well thank you so much for popping into my office today to talk about Christian Wiman.
Jane: Of course, my pleasure.
Lisa: And now, Christian Wiman at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing
Christian Wiman: [00:09:21] I knew Bret Foster from years ago, we were in San Francisco together at Stanford University when we both had Stegner Fellows and maybe I was teaching at the time, I can’t remember. But, Bret was a little younger—or maybe he was the same age, I can’t remember—but Bret was a Christian and, as you know, those of you who know Bret, and at Stanford University twenty years ago this was an odd thing to be.
We all fancied ourselves radicals in some way, but it’s taken me years to realize that Bret was the true radical among us, and also to realize the kind of jolt that I had upon meeting him. It was Christianity, I can see, in retrospect, and the extent to which he lived what he believed, but it was also the way in which his experience seemed to move through him without getting snagged on things. And he had a kind of joy that was constant, and an ability to feel joy, which you realize when you meet someone like that, is a rare quality. He was writing, right up until his death; this poem is called “The Tongue is the Pen.” It’s got a little epigraph, Isaiah, it says Isaiah 43, “Behold I will make all things new” is what I assume what he’s referring to.
[00:10:53] I am making all things new! Or am trying to,
being so surprised to be one of those guys
who may be dying early. This is yet one more
earthen declaration, uttered through a better
prophet’s more durable mouth, with heart
astir. It’s not oath-taking that I’m concerned
with here, for what that’s worth— instead just a cry
from the very blood, a good, sound imprecation
to give the sickness and the shivering meaning.
Former things have not been forgotten,
but they have forgotten me. The dear, the sweet,
the blessed past, writes Bassani. Tongue is the pen.
Donning some blanket of decorousness
is not the prophet’s profession, not ever.
Not that I’ve tasted the prophet’s honey or fire:
I’m just a shocked, confounded fellow
who’s standing here, pumping the bellows
of his mellifluous sorrow. Yet sorrow’s the thing
for all prophets. Make a way in the wilderness,
streaming your home-studio-made recordings
from a personal wasteland. These are my thoughts.
I can’t manage the serious beard. My sackcloth
is the flannel shirt I’m wearing. But the short-circuited
months have whitened my hair, and it’s not
for nothing that Jeffrey calls me, with affectionate
mockery, the silver fox. It’s a prerequisite, finally—
being a marginal prophet, but a severe attention
to envisioned tomorrows must be present, too,
must be perceived as possible, audible, or followable.
There’s a hypothetically bright future for everything,
each wounded creature that is bitten, or bites.
And speaking of things overheard, you heard right:
if I have to go out, I am going to go out singing.
[00:13:15] It’s Bret Foster, but also I’d like to remember, thank you, I forgot a book, she went to get for me. Roger Lundin, who also taught at Wheaton College and was a friend of mine and died the exact same week, what a tragedy for Wheaton College. The author of several books, two of which are really wonderful called Believing Again, which is fantastic, and another one called The Art of Emily Dickinson, I might be getting that title slightly wrong, but they’re both really, really wonderful.
Years ago I lived in Prague. And at the time, Prague was a very different city from what it is now. You could get an apartment there if you were a foreigner for thirty-five dollars a month. And I lived with someone, at the time—if you paid in American dollars—I lived with someone at the time, and we lived on the seventh floor of one of those grim, gray apartment complexes that surround so many Eastern European cities—paneláks, they’re called in Czech. And one day, when I was sitting at the kitchen table studying Czech—and do not come up to me and speak Czech, please [laughter]; I have had that happen—I was sitting at the kitchen table studying Czech, and my girlfriend was in the bath, and a falcon, kestrel, landed just three feet from me, behind the pane of glass, the window pane, on the other side. It took me ten years to write the poem, but eventually I got something out of it, and this poem is called “Postolka,” which in Czech means falcon or kestrel.
[00:14:51] When I was learning words
and you were in the bath
there was a flurry of small birds
and in the aftermath
of all that panicked flight -
as if the red dusk willed
a concentration of its light -
a falcon on the sill.
It scanned the orchard’s bowers,
then pane by pane it eyed
the stories facing ours
but never looked inside.
I called you in to see.
And when you steamed the room
and naked next to me
stood dripping, as a bloom
of blood formed in your cheek
and slowly seemed to melt,
I could almost speak
the love I almost felt.
Wish for something, you said.
A shiver pricked your spine.
The falcon turned its head
and locked its eyes on mine.
For a long moment then
I wished and wished and wished
the moment would not end.
And just like that it vanished.
[00:16:15] It’s a poem about not being able to inhabit the life that you’ve been given. It’s a celebration of life and the Earth by someone whose mind is tuned only to elegies. It’s a curious fact of being a writer that you can often feel most intensely the life that you’ve failed to feel. [laughter] Henry James, Jane alluded to Henry James in her introduction, she said that of me, someone of whom nothing is lost. I’m sure my wife’s in the audience, she’ll find that hilarious. [laughter] But the great irony is that Henry James was always writing about the life that he felt like he stood at the edge of. “The Beast in the Jungle” is a great example of the love the guy cannot recognize until it’s too late.
I grew up in West Texas and I’m gonna read a poem that’s set there. Some people ask me, how is it that a poet can come from West Texas? But I’ve never seen it—it’s never seemed to me all that strange, actually. I grew up without books but I had plenty of useful experience to draw upon, and one of them was when I was in my teens, late teens, sixteen in this poem. I worked in the oil fields like everyone I knew, basically, and did construction in the oil fields and at one point we were paving roadways to tank batteries, or maybe the area around tank batteries, I don’t remember. But my job for a while was to drive the steamroller, and it wasn’t a little steamroller, it was a huge steamroller. One of those great, big ones so that you’re way up in the air and you know you’re sixteen years old, and this is cool. But the coolest thing was to be out there in the blasting, hot West Texas summer day on that steam roller and to see a snake. [laughter] Think about it.
This poem is called “Native,” it’s about the ambivalent relationship that many of us have to the places that we’re from. We love ’em and we hate ’em.
to be exact),
on being not
this, not that,
a fat black snake.
Up surged a cheer
were grunts, squints,
it would take
a lunatic acuity
the fat black snake
as the asphalt
under all ten tons
flat as the landscape
I could see
no end of,
flat as the affect
of distant killing
it would take a native
to know was love.
[00:19:23] The poem is about the way love can force itself into such austere forms that can be hard to recognize as love. I’m interested, I have little kids, and I’m interested in all the, you go to the events for kids these days and there are a lot of men there. When I was growing up, fathers were never at any events at all, and I did not know one person who had a relationship, close relationship, with his father. Daughters could, but I didn’t know any sons when I was growing up.
And so I’m often moved by poems that manage to show love expressed in forms that might not be perceivable from the outside. And Robert Hayden, a great African-American poet, Robert Hayden is a great example, of “Those Winter Sundays,” which ends, his father was taking, he realizes his father was always polishing his shoes and getting the fire blazing in the house and no one ever thanked him. “What did I know, what did I know of / love’s austere and lonely offices?” Love’s austere and lonely offices, very beautiful poem.
This poem—several of the poems I’ve written in recent years memorialize figures from my time as a child, and this one does. It’s called “Believing Green.” Sort of obsessed with what it means to be a Christian, in terms of projecting your life forward. This poem is one answer.
[00:20:56] Solitary as a mast on a mountaintop,
an ocean of knowing long withdrawn,
she dittied the days, grew fluent in cat,
felt, she said, each seed surreptitiously split
the adamantine dark, believing green.
It was the town’s torpor washed me to her door,
it was the itch existence stranded me on that shore
of big-lipped shells pinked with altogether other suns,
random wall-blobs impastoed with jewels and jowls
sometimes a citizen seemed to peek through,
inward and inward all the space and spice
of her edible heavens.
O to feel again within the molded dough
wet pottery, buttery cosmos, brain that has not cooled;
to bring to being an instant
sculpture garden: five flashlit jackrabbits locked in black.
From her I learned the earthworm’s exemplary open-mindedness,
its engine of discriminate shit.
From her I learned all the nuances of neverness
that link the gladiola to God.
How gone she must be, graveless maybe,
who felt the best death would be for friends to eat you,
whose last name I never even knew:
dirt-rich mouse-proud lady who Rubied me
into a life so starred and laughtered there was no need
This poem is in opposition to that poem “Postolka,” with which I began. This is a little poem for my wife, called “For D.” The image in the poem is very short, tiny, probably can’t see, but tiny. It’s a young tree, I actually saw this, a young tree had cracked partly and caught in the crook of another tree and stayed alive that way. It didn’t die, it was being held up so it didn’t die, it didn’t die. “For D.”
[00:23:34] Groans going all the way up a young tree
half–cracked and caught in the crook of another
pause. All around the hill-ringed, heavened pond
leaves shush themselves like an audience.
A cellular stillness, as of some huge attention
bearing down. May I hold your hand?
A clutch of mayflies banqueting on oblivion
writhes above the water like visible light.
[00:24:21] I don’t take much comfort from the notion of heaven. That poem, “Believing Green,” it’s about a woman who lived her life so utterly that she felt no need to project herself beyond, and I understand that. I feel that when people, when I hear people talk about heaven, what they usually mean is a projection of the self. It seems to me that, as I understand Christianity, it should be a scouring of these existences, of this existence, in some way. And ought to free us from just such things, rather than cause us to project ourselves ad infinitum. That’s what the atheists object to, that we are not facing death when we speak of heaven, and I think they have a point.
And yet, we have these moments in our lives that seem to project us beyond ourselves. We have these moments of banqueting on oblivion, as that poem just says, moments when maybe oblivion seems like it just whispers in your ear, as if it has an agency, as if maybe it’s not oblivion. As if it’s something else. We have these moments, which, if we are gonna live honest lives afterwards, we have to be true to, we have to, in some ways, live up to.
Abraham Joshua Heschel says that faith is mostly faithfulness to the times when we had faith. Which is a great way of thinking of it. We all have these moments in our lives where we’re absolutely sure of the meaning of existence, or actually freed from seeking the meaning of existence. And then we all fall away from them after and wonder how in the world were we that person that could perceive that. Heschel says that to have faith is to remain true to that person that you were. So true to that person that was in that poem, “For D,” who could feel that love and that light becoming the same thing. So it’s a complicated notion. I don’t think you can fill heaven with any content, but I don’t think you can jettison the concept.
Here’s a poem that I wrote when I was wrestling with these things. Jane mentioned it in her introduction. It’s set on the L in Chicago, where my wife and I lived for a decade. I was editing Poetry magazine at the time, and the stop that I would get off on on the train is Grand, downtown, and the poem is called “My Stop Is Grand.” [laughter] The poem mentions another stop, Clark and Division. Let’s see if you need to know anything else. It can be difficult to hear a poem for the first time, so I’m gonna tell you exactly the scene.
It is a bunch of people crammed onto the commuter train, miserable and sweaty and angry to be crammed together, or at least I was projecting that upon all of them. And suddenly, there was this fan tilled sparks like you’ll see sometimes from train tracks, but this one was truly extraordinary, and everyone, again in my mind, turned to look at the same time, and saw one thing. And then had gone on back to the day, miserable day, headed towards a gray day in the middle of winter in Chicago.
And this poem is about what survives. What does it mean to think of your own death, if you are facing it? And actually, when I wrote this poem, I was quite sick. I wrote it all one night, when I felt the sickness unto death, in both senses, Kierkegaard’s phrase, “the anxiety of meaninglessness,” and literal. “My Stop Is Grand.”
[00:28:16] I have no illusion
of force and form
will save me,
as when the El
shooting through a hell
of ratty alleys
where nothing thrives
and the ratlike lives
that have learned to eat it
a grace of sparks
so far out and above
the fast curve that jostled
and fastened us
into a single shock of—
I will not call it love
but at least some brief
and no doubt illusionary belief
that in one surge of brain
we were all seeing
a lone unearned loveliness
struck from an iron pain.
Already it was gone.
Already it was bone,
the gray sky
and the encroaching skyline
pecked so clean
by raptor night
I shuddered at the cold gleam
we hurtled toward
like some insentient herd
plunging underground at Clark
And yet all that day
I had a kind of vision
that’s never gone completely away
of immense clear-paned towers
and endlessly expendable hours
through which I walked
teeming human streets,
filled with a shine
that was most intimately me
and not mine.
[00:30:11] I take that, at the end—I would not have thought this writing it—but I take that, at the end, “filled with a shine that was most intimately me, and not mine” to be an image of Jesus. “For Christ plays in ten thousand places,” goes the poem, and “Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father, to the features of men’s faces.”
I’ve been confused, in my life, sometimes by given access to poems like this, and I think this happens to a lot of artists: given access to poems that seem to you to give them meaning of existence, or again, to free you from the need to assign a meaning to existence, and then afterwards being left in the dull, cold existence of being uninspired, and waiting for the next thing to come. I don’t write many poems, and it seems to me that there’s a long time between them, again my wife’s clutching her head and saying “Oh my God, he writes way too many poems.” [laughter from the audience]
I’ve been confused in my life by having that rapture of experience. Oh, for “the one rapture of an inspiration,” says Hopkins. And then, having all of those fireless times in between, but also, sometimes, having an inspiration that seems to lead you to repudiate the very thing that you were praising before. And I have found that quite confusing.
I had, in fact, last time I was at this conference—I think it was here—someone asked me if I was an atheist Christian, because some of the poems were so directly against other poems that I read. And it took me a long time to come to terms with it. I was pretty confused by it, because if you’re an artist, you do come to trust what’s revealed to you in your art more than anything else. And so, if your art is telling you that there is no God, and you are bereft and pursuing God is a waste of your time, well that’s a problem. I was helped greatly by reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer at one point, and his letters/papers from prison and his work in general, and at the end of Letters and Papers from Prison, he has that famous, famous line where he says “We must, we are called to live in a world without God, before God and with God we stand without God.”
So that paradox, we are called to live in a world without God. He was imprisoned, of course, fearful for his life, and heroic to the end. And it began to seem to me that the same energy that compelled me in earlier poems that led me to praise God, was the very same energy that might lead me to sing of godlessness in other times. And I began to think that it might be that some people—maybe all people—are, in some way, called to unbelief at certain times in their life. Called to it, in order that your faith can extend itself, in order that faith can transform, in order that faith can find new forms.
When I was going through these thoughts, I was led to a poet, Osip Mandelstam. I’m gonna read a few of these. My wife was reading Mandelstam, she was really interested in it; when you’re young, you read for predatory reasons, you read because you want to. Everything you read, it’s because what, you’re asking, what can I gain from this, you know, what can I gain, what can I steal, what can I get. And even, if it’s too good, it bothers you when you’re young. You’re, like, irritated. [laughter] But, as you get older, I found that your reasons become sympathetic. You read to make contact with people around you, to make contact with the dead. It’s a very different way of reading, and much more productive. Perhaps not as critically astute, but much more productive.
Mandelstam was a great modernist poet. He was Jewish, he converted to Christianity in his late teens, early twenties, but it’s not clear what that meant to him, because he—lots of people who were Jewish had to convert to Christianity because you couldn’t get a job translating, or you couldn’t go to university, and he wanted to do both. However, he did convert to Finnish Methodism, which is odd. [audience laughter] Very specific, and not exactly safe. It wasn’t the safe route for him to go.
And, and he also wrote several poems that took Christianity quite seriously. Here’s a little bit from an early poem called “Tristia,” one of his famous poems. I’m not gonna read much of it, but it’s interesting because it shows the nature of his ambition. Modernism was a time in which, well, the famous phrase is “light writes white,” which everyone seemed to repeat, meaning that if everything is light in your life, if all you have is happiness, well then you’ve got a blank page. That page will always stay blank, because what you need is some sort of tension or contradiction or suffering to turn your energy into art. “Light writes white.” Well, Mandelstam resisted that.
[00:36:05] I love the calm and custom of quick fingers weaving,
The shuttle’s buzz and hum, the spindle’s bees.
And look — arriving or leaving, spun from down,
Some barefoot Delia barely touching the ground …
What rot has reached the very root of us
That we should have no language for our praise?
What is, was; what was, will be again; and our whole lives’
Sweetness lies in these meetings that we recognize.
These are wonderful lines, and wise, I think, in the way that they describe the way that our lives are raveled together. And these moments that we think take us completely out of our lives must be in some way integrated into the rest of our lives for them to have their full meaning. And also, that we should have no language for our praise.
So Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, were hounded by Stalin. Stalin was driven crazy by Mandelstam, and you get the sense, when you read the life of Mandelstam and read the history that it was not simply what Mandelstam did, which was troubling enough—I’ll get to that—but it was something of the pure, lyric spirit that Mandelstam represented that bothered Stalin.
And he was, Mandelstam and his wife were forever having to move, even before things became terrible for them, forever having to move from Moscow to Petersburg to here to there to there to out in the Hinterlands and back and forth and this poem—they never knew when things were gonna be taken away—and this poem is set in Moscow when they had an apartment for a brief period of time, this is him and his wife sitting in a kitchen.
Come love let us sit together
In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.
There’s fuel enough to forget the weather,
The knife is ours and the bread is clean.
Come love let us play the game
Of what to take and when to run,
Of come with me and come what may
And holding hands to hold off the sun.
She wrote a beautiful book called Hope Against Hope which chronicles their last years and all of the experiences that they went through, it’s what really made Mandelstam famous in the West. Mandelstam is amazing for the range of his voice. He can do all kinds of things; he can be very intensely lyrical, he could write narrative poems, and he could be very funny. And one of the strangest things about him is he could be very funny right at the edge of death. This poem is called “Heads Over”—actually, I gave it that title, it doesn’t really have it. This, it seemed to demand it—This is when they lived in a different apartment, they had a guy who played the violin next to them and sort of drove them crazy with his violin.
Once upon a time, there lived a Jew
A musical Jew, I tell you, named
Sweet as sherbet, his schubert
A jewel, I tell you
A musical jewel
Dawn to dusk, day after day
The same damn jewel
In the same damn way
What is this, salamander slivovitz
And what are you, a holy fool?
Scetzovitz, enough of itz!
Let the dulce de lece maiden swoon
Schubert through her skin
Let the children sleigh allegro
The swiftness and darkness and star sparkled snow.
We’re not afraid to die, you and I
To flutter down like a dove,
A musical dove, to hang on a black hook
Like a coat and glove
A worn, one-armed coat
And a tattered, three-fingered glove.
Oh, maestro, Alexander Hertsovitz,
Whose hands and heart are blown to bits
What in you, pinned you there?
My lonely mister, heaven’s busker
Playing your sad, your same
Your only heir.
He really turns it. He turns that knife at the end. He gets you early on with the humor and sort of the jaunty spirit of the poem, and then [cutting noise].
This is the last poem that Mandelstam wrote; he actually wrote three poems on the last day that we have poems from him. I like to believe this is the last poem. He was wandering the streets of a town called Voronezh and, saying, composing these poems, like William Wordsworth, in his head, not on paper. Partly because that was simply the way he composed them, and partly because it was too dangerous to write things down at the time. And so he would go home at night and tell them to his wife or his friends, and then they would remember them and that’s how the poems got passed down. You could imagine the textual difficulties that has caused.
This poem is called “And I Was Alive,” and he knew that his life was almost over. Mandelstam was last seen picking through a garbage dump—in a trash heap—picking through a garbage dump on his way, in a transit camp, on his way to outer Siberia. I mean, one of the best poets of the twentieth century, one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, I mean, prose, translations, poetry; really a great mind. Picking through a garbage dump for food. And before that, he writes this poem. I sometimes think that every life is arrowing towards some conclusion that you’re—that we’re meant to be. It’s not necessarily a work of art. For few of us it will be a work of art. But some very particular act, or word, or gesture, or something that could come only from us. And seems demanded by God; imagine this, being your last gesture.
[00:42:53] And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self–shattering
And it was all aimed at me.
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.
Amazing poet, Osip Mandelstam.
I’m gonna end with four short poems. Oh, actually, it looks like I forgot those poems too. Nice. [laughter from audience] I might be able to do them. I could try them, I could try it. There are—these are two new poems. One is—this is a real challenge. If I mess up, I mess up, all right? [laughter] I don’t have them. I thought about this right in the green room that I was gonna read a couple of new poems … suddenly I’m nervous. [laughter]
This is a poem ending with a sentence from Jacques Maritain, a great Catholic philosopher, theologian, wrote a lot about art and creative intuition. We often think of certain perfections leading us to think of God, of coherences that we see, and I think actually it’s often what is missing that makes us think of God or feel God’s presence.
Marilynne Robinson has a wonderful passage in Housekeeping where—a very famous passage—where she talks about. It’s late in that book, and the girl has wandered out away from her aunt and said “Imagine the Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seed lain however long in the earth, till there are rose and vegetable profusion, a garden of leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden?”
And she goes on to say, “When do we know anything so utterly as when we lack it?” Here again is a foreshadowing—“the world will be made whole.” It’s a very, very beautiful passage, if you don’t know it, find that book: Housekeeping. But it’s an example of a kind of absence or destitution—oh, now I have it here. [laughter and applause] It’s an example of a kind of absence or destitution leading to a perception of God. And that’s what this is, all that introduction for this tiny little poem. It’s six lines.
It begins with—it’s easier to tell if you have the poem in front of you—it begins with an image of leaves, ends with Jacques Maritain.
[00:46:30] It was the flash of black among the yellow billion.
It was the green chink on the chapel’s sphere.
It was some rust or recalcitrance in us
by which we were by the grace of pain more here.
It was you, me, fall and fallen light.
It was that kind of imperfection
through which infinity wounds the finite.
I’ve always been—I remember walking along the lake by, in Chicago once, and being struck by what life must be under what seems like a completely dead thing because, you know, that lake freezes in the winter. And this poem came years later, “Good Lord the Light.”
[00:47:26] Good morning misery,
goodbye belief, [laughter]
good Lord the light
cutting across the lake
so long gone
to ice —
There is an under, always,
through which things still move, breathe,
and have their being,
quick coals and crimsons
no one need see
Good night knowledge,
good God the winter
one must wander
one’s own soul
The last poems I’ll read … a few years ago, when my daughters were two years old, we took a summer and went to Seattle—and it was the first break I had had from Poetry magazine in ten years and I had also just had a bone marrow transplant, which I do not recommend if you are look for some galvanizing, artistic experience. [laughter] But we had this summer, my wife and I and our daughters, and it was glorious, you know, it was a golden summer. It remains that, in memory, and in the mornings we would work and the girls would go off to a little daycare, a wonderful little daycare, then we’d usually come together in the afternoons and go explore the city somewhere and do something.
And we had the same little ritual that we, then, that we do now. I would read to the girls and then tuck them in before my wife took over and did the really hard work of getting them to sleep. And I would kiss each of them and say, you know, “I love you Eliza, I love you Fiona,” and they would say it back to me and that would be that.
And one night, I kissed little Fiona, and she’s got dark hair, dark eyes, complete opposite of me and my wife, and this little two-year-old says nothing, and I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly the schedule was changed, the ritual was broken [laughter] and I said well, “Do you love me too, Fiona?” [laughter] and she waited a minute and put her finger right there and said “No, Daddy, I don’t.” [laughter] And, again, I didn’t know what to do, and I said “What? I bet you do, Fiona” [laughter] and silence. So then I was standing, getting ready to stand up, and you know, she’s two years old, what are you gonna do?
And I said, “Well, I love you sweetie, I’ll see you in the morning,” and I went to stand up and she put her little hand on my arm and she says, “I will love you in the summertime, Daddy.” [laughter] “Daddy, I will love you in the summertime.” And I tell people this story, and some of them think it’s heartbreaking and I was so proud [intense laughter] and I thought, “‘I will love you in the summertime,’ it’s such a piercing, poetic thing to say” [laughter] for a little two-year-old. It was all I could do, just to say “Brilliant! That’s fantastic!” [laughter]
So that eventually, worked its way into this poem, those lines which I wrote a while later. And the poem concerns what it means to witness and what it means to pray, what a prayer looks like. I wrote an essay about this using that anecdote, actually, about how you teach your children to pray, and how sometimes you don’t need to. They need to teach you. This is—and the poem begins with the way in which we see the Word of God in nature. “Witness.”
[00:51:32] Typically cryptic, God said three weasels
slipping electric over the rocks
one current conducting them up the tree
by the river in the woods in the country
into which I walked
away and away and away;
and a moon-blued, cloud-strewn night sky
like an x-ray
with here a mass and there a mass
and everywhere a mass;
and to the tune of a two-year-old
storm of atoms
elliptically, electrically alive—
I will love you in the summertime, Daddy.
I will love you...in the summertime.
Once in the west I lay down dying
to see something other than the dying stars
so singularly clear, so unassailably there,
they made me reach for something other.
I said I will not bow down again
to the numinous ruins.
I said I will not violate my silence with prayer.
I said Lord, Lord
in the speechless way of things
that bear years, and hard weather, and witness.
[00:52:56] Let me end with the last poem in this book, which is also to my wife. “Gone for the day, she is the day.” It has breaks in it, which I’ll just pause between them.
Dawn is a dog’s yawn, space
in bed where a body should be,
a nectared yard, night surviving
in wires through which what voices,
what needs already move--and the mind
nibbling, nibbling at Nothingness
like a mouse at cheese:
Sometimes one has the sense
that to say the name
God is a great betrayal,
but whether one is betraying
God, language, or one’s self
is harder to say.
Gone for the day, she is the day
opening in and around me like flowers
she planted in our yard
Christ, not flowers
Gone for the day, she is the day
razoring in, with the Serbian roofers
at 10 o’clock, tapped exactly by the one bad wheel
of the tortilla cart
and the newborn’s noonday anguish eased
and the ome the mind makes of traffic
and the bite of reality that brings it back
and the late afternoon sun after light
in which a much loved dog lies
like a piece of precocious darkness,
lifting his ears at threats, treats, comings, goings.
To love is to feel your death
given to you like a sentence
to meet the judge’s eyes, as if they were a judge
as if he had eyes
Thank you all very much.
Lisa: [00:55:28] Many thanks to Jane Zwart. Learn more about the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing at ccfw.calvin.edu. Thanks also to Christian Wiman. A new collection of his poems spanning his career so far is out now, titled Hammer Is the Prayer.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Jon Brown, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Deb Rienstra, Amanda Smartt, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.