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Reviews

Making Nothing Happen / My Bright Abyss

Theo Hobson

Making Nothing Happen: Five poets explore faith and spirituality
Gavin D'Costa, Eleanor Nesbitt, Mark Pryce, Ruth Shelton and Nicola Slee
Ashgate, 215pp

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a modern believer
Christian Wiman
Farrar, Strauus and Giroux, 182pp

 

What is poetry? It's a form of creative writing in which the right-hand margin is uneven, as the words are arranged into short units, 'lines'. It is capable of giving words a special force, a sort of electric charge. This is partly an echo of the ritual significance that has anciently attached to poetry, or something like it (song, chant, incantation). We might add that 'serious' poetry has, in the last century or so, become difficult, obscure. Maybe it seeks to renew its aura of mystery by this means.

The relationship between Christianity and poetry is complicated. To say that prayers and liturgies are forms of poetry gets things the wrong way round. Worshipspeech is more basic, more primal than 'poetry' - for poetry in the modern sense is at one remove, at least, from any sort of cultic practice; it's a secular thing (with religious echoes).

And yet there is a deep affinity between poetry and faith, for faith stands slightly apart from the cultic language it's rooted in: the Christian grapples with the cultic forms, argues with them, plays with them, makes her own cover versions in her head. This is profoundly akin to the creativity of poetry, which is a self-conscious, reflective use of strong language. For many of us, then, Christian poetry is the most complete and intense medium, or expression, of faith.

Making Nothing Happen (the title is from an Auden line: 'poetry makes nothing happen') is a collection of reflections on poetry and faith by a group of Christian poets called 'the Diviners'; they also present some of their work. Though there are five different voices, there is a dominant tone in the prose sections. It is that of the retreat leader: piety tinged with artsy therapy. There is much earnest enthusing about the overlap of language, creativity, faith, the human spirit. No one says anything very angular or suprising. I'm afraid I mainly found the poems similarly dominated by a predictable piety - a combination of religious piety and the vaguer piety of poetry as a source of insight, depth and the blessing of the mundane. Such poetry is liable to relate faith too closely to the secular quasi-faith of 'poetry', and so understate its otherness. Maybe religious poetry should somehow dissent from 'poetry' - though of course there's no formula for how to do this. (Perhaps RS Thomas partly did it through forging a grumpy austere persona.)

For me, two of Gavin D'Costa's poems stand out from the crowd. In one, the speaker is trying to prepare his mind as he queues for the Eucharist, but instead there is an image of stress, chaos - a memory of a roadrage incident. Another has a broadly similar theme: in a 'quiet' train carriage there's a quasi-monastic calm, then a stressed woman makes some phone calls, and gets told off, exposing the calm as frail, escapist. In both, I like the honesty about the fact that life's messy anxiety is ever-present. In a way they are anti-epiphanies. He has found a way of dissenting from the normal gravitation to 'uplift'.

Christian Wiman's memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a modern believer is also concerned with the poetry of faith, for the author is a poet. Raised in Goddrenched Texas, Wiman edged away from faith as a student, and kept his distance from it as a poet and editor of a poetry journal. And then, in his thirties, he 'assented to the faith that was latent within me'. This coincided with falling in love, and marrying - and was soon after intensified, and complicated, by a serious affliction with cancer.

Before his conversion, Christianity seemed 'not only absurd to me but an obvious weakness. To be a Christian was to flinch from contingency and death… To be a Christian was death for art, which depends on an attitude of openness and unknowingness… It took a radical disruption of my life to allow me to see the vitality and sanity of this strange, ancient thing. There was no bolt-from-the blue revelation or conversion or any of that. My old ideas were simply not adequate for the extremes of joy and grief that I experienced, but when I looked at my life through the lens of Christianity - or, more specifically, through the lens of Christ, as much of Christianity seemed (and still seems) uselessly absurd to me - it made sense.' This is a good description of what you could call the ordinariness of faith - the sense that, instead of acquiring a magic link to the supernatural, one has a solider language to inhabit. As he puts it, 'Christ is not an answer to existence, but a means of existing.'

There is refreshing honesty about the co-existence of faith and anxiety: anxiety is 'the norm from which faith deviates, if faith is even what you could call these intense but somehow vague and fleeting experiences of God.' Faith generally feels like a strange mental effort, and sometimes 'I'm simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there's something worth buying.' He quotes Bonhoeffer a few times, and also echoes him, in the call for a new sort of religious language, a 'poetics of belief' that can rescue faith from banality. This could lead to 'a revolution in the way we worship'. Liberal forms of church are timid, he says, nervous of mentioning the centrality of the suffering of Christ. We need a new way of being true to the core of our tradition. I agree - and it's important to say such things even if you don't have some neat proposal for how to change it.

Often the book seems to lapse into vague mysticism, but then there will be a passage that redeems it. A few times he tackles the paradox that faith re-makes the world for the believer, yet leaves him where he is (it makes nothing happen). He ends by pondering the concept of grace, and recounting 'the fearful and hopeful state in which my wife and I lay the first night I was home from the hospital after the [bone marrow] transplant, feeling like a holy fever that bright defiance of, not death exactly, and not suffering, but meaningless death and suffering - which surely warrants, if anything does, the name of faith.'