“I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself, but I’m not sure I believe in that anymore. If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self–except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition. But all that comes after–the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of “ambition”? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves, to feel that we have selves, though the deepest moments of creation tell us that, in some fundamental way, we don’t. (Souls are what those moments reveal, which are both inside and outside, both us and other.) So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”
Here, in the final installment of “Mandelstam”, we end roughly where we began, with the poem echoed by Christian Wiman in his outstanding book “My Bright Abyss”. Wiman was my gateway into Mandelstam and his translation has proved to be both thoughtful and moving. This poem also serves as a excellent summary of Mandelstam and his quest to find light amid the darkness.
“Rough Draft” (1937)
Provisionally, then, and secretive,
I speak a truth whose time is not:
It lives in love and the pain of love,
In sweat, and the sky’s playful vacancy.
A whisper, then, a purgatorial prayer,
A testament of one man,…
There is, I know, a science of separation
In night’s disheveled elegies, stifled laments,
The clockwork oxen jaws, the tense anticipation
As the city’s vigil nears its sun and end.
I honor the natural ritual of the rooster’s cry,
The moment when, red-eyed from weeping, sleepless
Once again, someone hoists the journey’s burden,
And to weep and to sing become the same quicksilver verb.
But who can prophesy in the word good-bye
The abyss of loss into which we fall;
Or what, when the dawn fires burn in the Acropolis,
The rooster’s rusty clamor means for us;
Or why, when some new life floods the cut sky,
And the barn-warm oxen slowly…
Anthropologist and author T. M. Luhrmann has written a guest column for The New York Times this week called “Addicted to Prayer.” Luhrmann, who has spent time studying the American evangelical community and written a book on “the evangelical relationship with God”, discusses the benefits of any kind of prayer (including secular meditation) on health. She also, however, distinguishes the idea of spiritual warfare from other forms of prayer, and warns that any practice too “imaginative” can actually be detrimental. Luhrmann describes her wariness like this:
I was most struck by the dangers of prayer when people got deeply involved with…
The not-so-subtle -suggestions have been beckoning it for some time. With Wiman’s translation as a guide, this is the beginning of a descent into the “soul-demanding” work of Osip Mandelstam, an early 20th century Russian poet.
When light, failing,
Through stained glass,
The long grass
At the feet of Christ,
I crawl diabolical
To the foot of the cross
To sip the infinite
An air of thriving
Like a lone cypress
To some airless
Last month, Mockingbird co-sponsored a talk with poet Christian Wiman, whose Ambition and Survival, My Bright Abyss, and Every Riven Thing have quickly become Mbird favorites. We also had the great pleasure of interviewing him – transcript below:
MB: Thornton Wilder said that “the revival in religion will be a rhetorical problem – new persuasive words for defaced or degraded ones.” And you reference the need for a “new poetics of faith” in your new book – could you expand on that?
CW: I’m of two minds about that. There’s another quote in that book from a Polish poet, Anna Kamienska, who…
Perhaps you were as comforted as I was to come across a rather lengthy quote from Jurgen Moltmann’s opus The Crucified God in the “Varieties of Quiet” chapter of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss. We may not haven’t referenced it in far too long, but The Crucified God happens to be a Mockingbird stand-by, and that oversight ends this morning. The incredibly stirring passage Wiman chooses comes from pages 37-39 of the book, in which Moltmann deals with “The Resistance of the Cross Against its Interpretations”. A slightly expanded version, too relevant not to reproduce, reads as follows:
The modern criticism…
What a rare and inspiring privilege it was to be with poet and author Christian Wiman last week. I for one am still reeling–don’t know how it could have possibly been any richer. Thankfully, like his poetry in Every Riven Thing and his prose in My Bright Abyss, the talks he gave here in Charlottesville defy distillation. They require real attention–and while one might expect as much from an artist of his caliber and quality, still, the anticipation of poetic brilliance doesn’t make it any less arresting when you actually experience it.
Which is not to imply that a portion of…
I saw a tree inside a tree
as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close
to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit
that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind
haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision
over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.
Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would
(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow
even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,
that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.
To listen to Christian doing an astounding reading of an astounding poem, go here.
Another Week Ends: Underconfidence, Kate Middleton’s Picnics, Unreported Medical Advice, D.H. Lawrence’s Christian Wonder, the Double-Bind of Summer Movies, More Christian Wiman, and (Way) Too Much Sociology
1. How confident are you? Over at The New York Times, David Brooks surveyed his readers to get a sense for self-confidence, lack thereof, and the ways males and females experience confidence differently. While the word itself is a bit vague and murky, and Brooks found few trends in the survey data, the individual responses are definitely worth a look:
But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there. Let me just string together some of the interesting points…
Another Week Ends: Fairness, The Life of Wiman, Motherly Love, Malick Sacraments, Karr Talks Saunders, Anderson Shoots Prada, and the Ke$ha Trump Card
1) The Chronicle released a preview last month to Wiman’s newest piece of work, My Bright Abyss, which we’ve already pulled from a couple of times, here and here, and the life and the illness that spurred it. Jay Parini writes that poetry criticism and commentary began by pulling the fabric of a piece of work as closely as possible upon the tables of lived experience, but Parini also notes that contemporary criticism has become so po-mo-phobic of plainspeak that it winds up saying nothing at all. But Wiman, on the other hand, with sickness, has been voided of this…
Here, in the title essay for Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, he talks about the perennial nostalgia “seasoned” Christians tend to feel about the faith of younger years. Often selectively remembered (and often unhelpfully untrue), selves of the past are conjured up as a judgment upon the faith that is lacking here and now. We think about the devotion we used to have, the fervor. We used to journal, we say, we used to pray, really pray, as we walked to work–bible studies used to feel like something. Now it doesn’t so much–so what does that say about where the…