My Bright Abyss: Cancer, Poetry, and God

My Bright Abyss: Cancer, Poetry, and God

My Bright Abyss is narrative poetry by an award-winning poet with his back against the wall, diagnosed with an incurable cancer.*  The book is not thematically organized; it reads more like a diary of a poet whose death will come too soon.  Wiman writes about God, and thinks like a poet.  I don’t, and there is a subtle grace to his thought that I am unable to convey.  Not even the deep theologians I’ve written about have left me feeling more inadequate to the task of reviewing their work.  The result is that I am going to treat his book as though it were a set of claims or theses about God, even as it reads more like a poem.    

Wiman is an honest man, writing that his return to God has not lessened his terror of death.  About his grandmother, a deeply religious woman all her life, Wiman describes “a pure spiritual terror in her eyes” as she tried to answer his question: “Are you scared?”  But by then she could not speak.  Years later he had a similar experience.

God has given me courage in the past — I have felt palpably lifted beyond my own ability to respond or react. But this most recent time in the hospital, when the cancer had become so much more aggressive and it seemed for a time as if I’d reached the end of my options, I felt only death.  In retrospect it seems like a large and ominous failure. (loc 2141)

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