“Joy: that durable, inexhaustible, essential, inadequate word. That something in the soul that makes one able to claim again the word ‘soul.’” (xxxvii)
Last year two books from Christian Wiman made their way to my reading stand. If nothing else had happened in the literary world in 2018, those two works would have been enough. I reviewed Wiman’s memoir, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, The Faith of Art, in a November post and it made it onto the Heartlands Top Ten list. To call it a memoir is to shortchange it. It was a celebration of poetry, art, faith, and hope in the face of Wiman’s life-threatening cancer.
The other book is a poetry collection that has been my companion for a season during my morning prayers and poetry reading. Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Wiman, the former editor of Poetry magazine and a religion professor at Yale, was actually published in 2017. In an introductory essay Wiman explores some of the same themes that exercise him in the memoir. Such as, how to speak of faith when the world is so inured to its ancient power. And yet still evidences a hunger for it.
To get at this, Wiman quotes a poem by Richard Wilbur included in the collection:
Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.
—Richard Wilbur, ‘Hamlen Brook’ (11)
He then goes on to say:
I suspect that for most of us the ‘ache’ at the end of Wilbur’s poem, the longing that ‘nothing can satisfy,’ will seem all too familiar and, no matter how much or how little ‘faith’ we have, ineradicable. Wilbur himself, after all, is a practicing Christian. He may very well mean ‘nothing but God,’ but the poem is careful not to say that, and its reticence is not merely a matter of form and modern metaphysical decorum. To state such a thing, to name the experience and its source in such an authoritative way, would be to betray everything that made the experience what it was. The question that Wilbur’s poem raises, then, the question that many of the poems in this book raise, remains: now what? (xxi-xxii)
Emphasis on the ‘now.’ So many of these poems are exacting meditations on the instant. Like Wilbur’s attention to the brook that gives its name to the poem—not as a Platonic ideal of a stream, but as the thing it is in the moment he stoops to drink from it. He sees “a startled inchling trout” darting through “a flicked slew/Of sparks and glittering silt.” He notes the “brace/ Of burnished dragon-flies” across the brook’s face and the “mirrored birch-trees” plunging to its depths. And in such bounty asks, “How shall I drink all this?” (11)
He can’t. None can. “Simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to is essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being,” Nan Shepherd says in The Living Mountain. (10)
“‘Don’t cry, it’s only music,’/Someone’s voice is saying” to the poet in Lisel Mueller’s ‘Joy.’ (40) But it’s never only music. It’s always something more.
Which is why, in the midst of a discussion of the definition of joy, Wiman lands here: “Perhaps it comes down to this: you would not say of joy that it is ‘something little,’ even when the details that give rise to it seem almost too ordinary to notice.” (xxxi)
No, joy is not little at all. It’s not an exalted degree of happiness but an immersion in the present, however painful. It’s not satisfaction but desire. Were you to be the one “Who never wanted,” Emily Dickinson declares, “maddest Joy” would “remain…unknown.” Were you to be sated with “the Actual” it would “disenthrall thy soul.” (56, ‘Who Never Wanted—Maddest Joy’)
Or to put it in the words of the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing in the 1930s in the face of the Soviet gulags:
It seems to me that for any artist eternity is something tangibly present in every fleeting fraction of time, which he would gladly stop and thus make even more tangible. What causes anguish in an artist is not longing for eternity, but a temporary loss of his feeling that every second of time is, in its fullness and density, the equal of eternity itself. —Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope (113)
There are treasures like this on every page of Joy. I found myself writing verses down each morning and spurred to write a few of my own. It seemed no day was not without its intimations of glory. And even when it wasn’t metaphysical, it was skipping.
These are days that need joy. And this is a book that will soothe your soul and make you say, ‘Yes,’ (just like Muriel Rukeyser does in her poem of that title.) Even if it’s “stupid and lovely/To rush into Yes.”
Open your eyes,
Dream but don’t guess.
Your biggest surprise
Comes after Yes. (166-7)