It Was the Summer of ’69 (*1)

Begin here:

Christ is contingency, I tell her as we cross the railroad tracks and walk down the dusty main street of this little town that is not the town where I was raised, but both reassuringly and disconcertingly reminiscent of it: the ramshackle resiliency of the buildings around the square; Spanish rivering right next to rocklike English, the two fusing for a moment into a single dialect then splitting again; cowboys with creek-bed faces stepping determinedly out of the convenience store with sky in their eyes and twelve-packs in their arms. I have spent the past four weeks in solitude, working on these little prose fragments that seem to be the only thing I can sustain, trying day and night to “figure out” just what it is I believe, a mission made more urgent by the fact that I have recently been diagnosed with an incurable but unpredictable cancer…

– Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. (Specifically Sorrow’s Flower). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 2013. p. 16.

Then trace the river of language back:

While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls, I was suffering
Only the bullying sun of Madrid.
Each afternoon, in the casserole heat
Of the flat, as I sweated my way through
The life of Joyce, stinks from the fishmarket
Rose like a reek off a flax-dam.
At night on the balcony, gules of wine,
A sense of children in their dark corners,
Old women in black shawls near open windows,
The air a canyon rivering in Spanish.
We talked our way home over the starlit plains
Where patent leather of the Guardia Civil
Gleamed like fish-bellies in flax-poisoned waters.

‘Go back’ one said, ‘try to touch the people’… 

– from “4. Summer 1969”

– Heaney, Seamus. Poems: 1965-1975. (Specifically from North). Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, New York. 1987. p. 224-225.

If a person has read Wiman’s “Ambition & Survival: On Becoming a Poet” and doesn’t immediately go read Seamus Heaney, then she didn’t pay attention to Wiman’s (almost) imperatives. 

On another note, the allusion bears some digging. The “her” in Wiman’s essay (Sorrow’s Flower) is a woman Wiman had known in his youth. As the essay progresses we realize that he has taken some sort of retreat in middle-age as he has both come to faith in Christ, and as the essay says, been diagnosed with cancer. The woman on the other hand has recently gone through a divorce that essentially wrecked her faith. Brief recollections of their conversation carry the narrative of the essay. Wiman quite self-consciously realizes how abstruse (ridiculous, he says) his statement “Christ is contingency” sounds in the midst of her suffering – especially against the backdrop of his monthlong sabbatical he has taken to “figure out” what he believes. Who among us can take a month off of work to scribble a few paragraphs about something as cloudy as belief? And while people suffer. Hmph.

Wiman gets that sentiment though. And I think the allusion is intended here, not just as a flourish for description, but to embellish the irony of his errand. Like Wiman, Heaney’s narrator is on a retreat, but instead of spiritual matters, this voice has held up in a Spanish flat to study Joyce (who but a poet can afford such luxuries) while a revolution oppresses the natives from whom he’s renting. Someone tells him to go back and touch the people, but instead he retreats to the Prado and ends with a meditation on Goya. Wiman knows this; he hopes the reader does too.

I read a review of Wiman’s book wherein the reviewer criticizes Wiman for writing a memoir “full of God but quite empty of people.” I’d take the genre to task, but the criticism is misguided (*2) and for these purposes the Heaney allusion is informative: Go back and touch the people, the critic said; but the poet instead searches the flesh-rending brutality of history then moves to the nightmares of Time and Chaos. What does a poet do when confronted with such horrors? What does a carpenter do? Or a farmer? They fall back into the rhythms of their trade and craft examining what meaning their labors have provided in the past. So Wiman fills the book with fine meditations on poetry (there are 33 cited in the acknowledgements), writing “with fists and elbows, flourishing”, in Heaney’s words, “the stained cape of his heart as history charges." 

That’s pretty damn touching.

*1 – How much money would one like to wager on the fact that Bryan Adams was also alluding to Heaney’s poem?

*2 – The criticism is misguided because Wiman writes: "It is not meditative communion with God that I crave. What one wants during extreme crisis is not connection with God, but connection with people; not supernatural love, but human love. No, that is not quite right. What one craves is supernatural love, but one finds it only within human love.” – from Wiman’s essay “A Million Little Oblivions” p. 164.

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