Monday, March 5, 2012

Christian Wiman

Christian Wiman, editor of  Poetry magazine since 2003, was recently interviewed by Bill Moyers about his journey with cancer, falling in love and finding faith in the midst of death. Wiman was diagnosed with Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia 6 years ago.  He's recently undergone a bone marrow transplant and tells Moyers he's in the "wait and see" phase.

As only a poet can do, Wiman's experience of being in danger of dying has allowed him to capture sentiments many of our dying patients may identify with.  His latest book of poems, "Every Riven Thing" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) captures these moments so artistically that it's easy to resonate with each word.

In the interview with Moyers found here, Wiman reads a poem he wrote while in the hospital. It was right before chemotherapy started, and written in just one day.

It begins,  "Love's last urgency/ is earth and grief is all/ gravity and the long fall/ always back to earliest/ hours that exist/ nowhere but in one's brain."

The poem later ends with "mystery mastering fear,/ so young, standing unstung/ under what survives of sky./ I learned too late how to live./ Child, teach me how to die."

Wiman goes on to talk about the opening line of the poem saying, "I think there's a notion that  when you're sick, when you're in danger of dying, that you want to get beyond. You know, you would think you want experience that takes you beyond earth. You want some since of an afterlife or ...beyond. But My experience has been the opposite, that when you feel threatened, what, in fact, you want is the earth. You want concreteness.That's what rescues you."

How profound. I also identified with the concept of going back to "earliest hours that exist", don't we experience this in palliative care? We often counsel families to not be alarmed when hearing a strange story from a loved one. It actually may be a memory that existed, "nowhere but in one's brain."

Besides being confronted with mortality, Wiman has also experienced excruciating pain throughout his disease process and treatment. He said that this even more than the idea of death has impacted him.

An essay he wrote related to pain was published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin for Winter/Spring 2012  and Wiman read it during the interview. In the words below I am struck with his isolation but also with the final effect of desire for God in the aftermath.

"Six years have passed since I wrote the first words of these notes. I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones die; joints lock in my face and arms and legs so that I could not eat, could not walk; cancer pack[ed] my marrow to the point that it began to expand excruciatingly inside my bones. I ... filled my body with mouse antibodies, small molecules, chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been islanded even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury."

Thanks to Chris Okon for steering me to the interview. For those, like me, who had not read Christian Wiman's poetry or prose, this will be someone to add to your collection.

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