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Essay

Forward into the Dark:
Twenty-Five Years of Ambition

 

IN “THE IRRATIONAL ELEMENT IN POETRY,” Wallace Stevens explains that the unknown “excites the ardor of scholars, who, in the known alone, would shrivel up with boredom…. [W]e may resent the consideration of [the unknown] by any except the most lucid minds; but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known.”

In the twenty-five years of Image, “the most lucid minds” have attempted to capture that which can be felt more than known. Even the light of faith leaves artists grasping in the dark, unsure of the shape of a God hoped for but never conventionally seen. And yet writers continue to use the only tools they have—words—to stretch toward that unknown.

Perhaps even the word “unknown,” and its cousin “mystery,” are the trouble. In Issue 75, Robert Cording explains that “biblical usage of ‘mystery’…refers not to the quantity of the unknown but rather to the quality of the known; it refers to awe rather than ignorance.” A consideration of a quarter-century of faith-soaked words in Image supports this possibility: the fallibility of words and the impossibility of fully knowing the divine will not stop writers from searching.

Words are not enough; but the imaginative application of words, their drama and paradoxes, make the literary search for God a weighty one, if only for its persistence. In “Parable of the Moth” (Issue 39), Cording chooses poetry as his mode of investigation, and like other poets in the pages of Image, he discovers that the prosaic is worthy of awe. The poem begins when “a moth flies into a man’s ear.” The insect’s beating wings are like “all the winds / of earth,” a “roar like nothing / he has ever heard.” His world is turned on its edge by a trapped bug. But this is not melodrama. It is a consideration of how little we recognize thousands of similar moments when life is disrupted, when the real becomes surreal. The man “screams in pain to drown / out the wind inside his ear, and curses God, / who, hours ago, was a benign generalization / in a world going along well enough.” Part Job, part complacent modern man, he is on the way to the hospital when his wife stops the car and tells him to “get out, / to sit in the grass” in the darkness. She holds a flashlight next to his ear to coax the moth out. The man lies back and stares at the “small road / of light going somewhere he has never been.”

Cording’s character is kin to the narrator of “The Manifestation,” a poem by Richard Jones (Issue 75). He longs to see the Perseids but is worried they will be covered by fog. The anticipation is supplemented by ritual: he puts his children to bed and kneels with them to pray. Afterward, he sits “in the quiet kitchen / as tall red candles / burned on the table” between him and his wife. He outlasts her that night, and alone, when their “neighboring houses / stood solemn and dark,” he goes into the yard. As in the atmosphere of “Parable of the Moth,” the poetic form clouds and unclouds. Both poems pose a reasonable question: what if the end of art is not mimesis?

The question arises not because words are incapable of such accuracy, but because to have full knowledge of even the smallest things is to not live fully in faith. Jones’s speaker longs for a show overhead, but the performance is in his mind; after all, that “host of streaking meteorites / [is] no bigger than grains of sand / blazing across the sky.” Absolute beauty is much closer: the lights in the windows of his home, his sleeping children and waiting wife, muted, but shining with “glory beyond all measure.”

There is a poetics at work here. To be certain, it is not exclusive to Image, but the magazine’s subtitle—Art, Faith, Mystery—coaxes out that aesthetic. One of its most profound explications appears early, in Issue 5, with Ron Hansen’s essay “Writing as Sacrament.” A deacon in the Diocese of San Jose, Hansen has always been a master storyteller and novelist, working within the sacramental tradition of fiction shared by Andre Dubus.

Hansen’s essay also inherits the outlook of his favorite poet, the nineteenth-century Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: we can think of literature as either a method of discovery or a transformative force. Hansen begins with the Augustinian idea of sacraments as “signs pertaining to things divine or visible forms of an invisible grace,” and then moves to the more contemporary theological conception of sacraments as an encounter between the divine and the daily. This encounter can take place in prayer, in patience, and, of course, within the act of writing.

Yet, as Hansen explains, honest literary engagement with God is not easy. It takes “confidence to face the great issues of God and faith and right conduct more directly.” He had, as a younger writer, taken T.S. Eliot’s dictum of the impersonal art too far. He now rejects the false objectivity of silence regarding matters of faith, but is equally turned off by mere evangelization. His essay is a call for a hard-earned literature of faith, and that call has been answered by writers in Image.

In Issue 19, Patricia Hampl continues the conversation begun by Hansen in her essay “A Week in the Word,” a reflection on a retreat at a California monastery named Logos. Her question: if writing is a sacrament, what are the words? Hampl is not sure. She thinks they might be the Psalms, those brief paradoxes that open with so many new folds, depending on the eyes and mouths that discover them. Hampl has faith in language: “words have proven to be more protean than blood.” To fully immerse herself in this world of words, she goes on retreat. There is “no crisis”; she simply needs to be “launched by the Psalms into a memory to which I belong but which is not mine. I don’t possess it; it possesses me. Possession understood not as ownership, but as embrace.”

If we get lost in Hampl’s exuberance, Ann Patchett’s “The Language of Faith” (Issue 26) offers a counterpoint. Patchett’s essay does not undermine Hampl’s longing for the Word through words, but her prose illustrates some of the problems with hoping to find God through letters. She writes beautifully about her twelve years in Catholic school, but admits that the “problem with writing about one’s self is that people are too in love with the details of their own lives.”

The solution she offers is polish through repetition, the discovery that some days, weeks, and months, we live in the rut of practicality. She arrives at understanding on the page: “You observe the Mass in all its glorious dullness. You practice. And then, in a storm in the middle of the night, all of the love comes rushing back to you.”

Patchett is certain that the tradition of faith in literature is greater than that of the “soulful atheists.” Faith prepared her to become a novelist. She finds metaphorical connections in the process of writing, the willingness to step forward into the darkness of an unfinished manuscript, but also in the ambitious desire to create a world. And she pushes further in this essay, which has the scope of memoir: she is Catholic, though she has disagreements and problems and doubts, because Catholicism offers a language of faith that makes her feel at home, that shows her there are “some edges in my world.”

For writers of honest faith, those edges are often pointed. In Issue 60, Valerie Sayers admits that “all writers worth reading go out on the muck, in the muck, and stir up threat, possibility, celebration, crisis”—regardless whether “their eyes are on God or not.” Yet she revels in the countercultural capital of her faith, how at dinners with academics, intellectuals, and artists “the word soul has caused the company to tremble and blush.” She also wants writers of faith to take back the word sin, but cautions, as does Hansen, that their job is story, not sermon. Easier said than done, but Sayers is aware of that.

In his introduction to Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image, editor Gregory Wolfe explains that the journal has always “privileged the language of art, which is dramatic and experiential, over the language of proposition and argument.” He continues that the journal rejects the tendency of Christian art and culture to “[withdraw] from the public square in an ill-considered and disastrous fit of self-righteousness,” resulting in “subcultures that sacrifice truth for the false allure of safety.”

Though Image began publishing after her death, it exists within the lineage of Flannery O’Connor, who is equally heralded by religious and secular readers. Her enigmatic career, and her rejection of the “pious trash” of lazy sermonizing in writing, have created a high standard for contemporary artists of faith. That she was a graduate of a secular creative writing program (the University of Iowa) and a frequent contributor to secular journals (Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review) might escape the rising tide of biographies and criticism, but it is most applicable to her connection with Image.

In his 1962 essay “The World of Little Magazines,” Felix Pollak explains that these publications are united by a “spirit of wide-openness, and receptivity to new ideas, theories, movements, and experiments; a stubborn refusal to conform to conventions and mores; an air of independence, a fervid antagonism against fetters and trammels and chains and strings of any kind.” Like Ezra Pound, Pollak does not use “little” in a pejorative manner; the stress is on freedom. The content of O’Connor’s work was foreign to many readers of these publications, but her skill and craft demanded attention. While she is better known as a profoundly religious writer than one who published in pioneering journals, her life reveals that the two identities are not mutually exclusive. Her publication record also reflects that American literature is built from the ground level, and that foundation is literary magazines.

As a contemporary example, take Erin McGraw, who, like O’Connor, publishes in the Kenyon Review, but has found a spiritual home at Image. She is our best current writer of American parish life, in the tradition of J.F. Powers. Her understated gem “The History of the Miracle” appeared in Issue 5.

The story begins with frazzled suburban mother Iris driving her reluctant daughter to kindergarten. When a pebble shoots from a gravel truck and cracks the windshield, Iris tries to calm her daughter’s screams and her own nervousness by pointing out the “explosion of lines,” how the cracks “caught the morning sun in a bright channel.” After all, Iris explains, they “wouldn’t have seen this if it didn’t get broken.” It is not easy to recognize that pain and fear lead to understanding. The evolution is comfortable as an intellectual idea, but in practice it stings.

A few days later, dutifully attending a parish crab supper after fighting all week, Iris and her husband Jack are publically called out for being late by a judgmental fellow parishioner. Kay—bound to a wheelchair by MS, always trapping people “into listening to her pathetic litany”—is Iris’s weakness, the one person she can’t bring herself to be kind to. Before the reader can dislike Iris for her lack of patience, McGraw offers an act of grace: Iris performs the Heimlich maneuver on a woman who almost chokes on a shell. The parishioners applaud, but Kay snickers, calling Iris’s help opportunistic.

Iris gets the same treatment from Jack later, when her attempts to be nice to him are received as patronizing. “I’m trying to be a good wife,” she says. He replies: “quit trying. It didn’t used to take you all this effort.” Here McGraw perfectly captures the domestic imbalance that threatens to derail relationships.

Iris is not a bad person (though I doubt a writer like McGraw would consider anyone innately bad). She’s a person whose good intentions are often vague and superficial.

Iris later leads a church group to a local clinic where they share donated medical supplies and serve lunch to the doctors and nurses. While making a sandwich, Iris is surprised by one of the clinic’s poor, hungry patients. She is not sure what to do; after all, the church “couldn’t bring enough food for patients, so they tried to be discreet about lunch.” But she offers the woman a ham sandwich. Soon other patients stream in, and she continues to slice ham and offer oranges. She should run out of food in minutes, but she is able to feed a multitude. Without a postmodern wink, McGraw allows the miracle to happen.

Before Iris returns home that afternoon, she is already being called a saint. Strangers begin leaving notes under the welcome mat, and she has to leave her phone off the hook. Her children want nothing to do with her newfound fame, and Jack quips that he’s “married to Our Lady of Sandwiches.” She is tired, her back hurts, and she’d only recently “been closing in on happiness like safe harbor.” A lesser writer would trace Iris’s narrative arc as a woman who moves from the complacency of temporary happiness to the prescience of spiritual transcendence. But the final scene of “The History of the Miracle” is so odd that it stamps into memory.

Iris has found shad roe, which she detests and Jack adores, at a local RiteBuy, and proudly purchases it as a peace offering. But in the parking lot she encounters Kay, who jabs her with questions. Did she really perform miracles? After all, “people are acting like it’s the second coming.” Iris tosses aside any divine consideration, but Kay has an answer for every denial. Iris, in a gesture that further reveals her instinct to help, goes to brush hair from Kay’s eyes, but Kay moves away in her motorized chair.

In a moment worthy of O’Connor, Kay yells, “Do you think I’m waiting for a miracle? I know what to expect from the world.” Iris has underestimated the cost of being a vessel of grace. She chases after Kay, catches her, and tells her that she’s “never known anyone who deserved curing more.” She picks Kay up out of her chair “before she had any idea what to do with her,” lifts her onto the hood of a sedan, and plops into the woman’s seat.

Iris zooms around the parking lot in the wheelchair, feeling “pleasantly mischievous.” But her ride does not last. The motor burns out. Iris stands in a rush, and an old back injury returns to steal her breath. Unable to move, feeling absolutely broken, she watches Kay flail for help.

In that moment, the women are suffering together in different ways. At first read, the story’s ending seems unfair. Iris had bad luck; she did good things for people but faltered with one person who discovered her weakness. A second look reveals that McGraw’s fiction is so finely defined by her Catholic worldview that she has perfectly dramatized the demands of sacrificial love. We might infer that the same grace that allowed Iris to be the conduit for the feeding of the patients will help her bear this new affliction. We don’t see her receive this kind of faith before the story ends, but that does not mean it will never arrive. The true power of McGraw’s fiction is gifting this same faith to the reader.

This is a refrain in Image: a spiritually informed publication will become neutered if it exists only to reiterate dogma. The best pieces published here have had the confidence and bravery to reach for the unknown, but not to reduce it to fallible language or logical theses. Susan L. Miller’s ekphrastic “Paradise” (Issue 77) is written in response to Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia’s 1445 painting. Although this painting shares the altarpiece predella with his iconic Expulsion from Paradise, it remains lesser known, making it perfect fodder for rebirth through poetry. The painting depicts souls embracing in the green field of paradise. This is heaven, but the focus is on renewal of friendship and love as a form of salvation. Miller’s poem extends the artistic moment. In this heavenly garden, “all the apples / have returned to us,” but the pursuit is not knowledge but peace. So have returned “All of our dead,” their “faces wrinkled with the labor / of the former life, and their hands, / when we grasp them, all callus.”

Miller’s choice of collective perspective is bold. This is no admiring eye standing in the museum; this is a poet inhabiting grand art, walking on the grass with Augustine and Monica. Her concluding lines are soothing and elegiac, and yet searing:

             Here in the garden
these worn familiar faces

face us, softened with the release
of the end of crisis.
My grieving one, let us meet

past regret, where rabbits bumble
through the grass beneath our feet,
and that weariness we visit

upon each other will pass
under boughs genuflecting
with the weight of untasted fruit—

A poem that ends with an em dash is finished, but its world continues. The literature of faith might aim for personal discovery, but its inquiry and boldness should not be mistaken for the audacity of eternal discovery, of purporting to know God enough to own God.

Writing is a sacramental act, for the reasons Ron Hansen gives, but also for the reason considered by Pulitzer Prize−winner Franz Wright in Issue 57: the sacrament of words. Hansen’s “sacrament of writing” focuses on writing as prayerful act, while Wright is more focused on the person and language of Christ, and the paradox that even when paraphrased, his words hold absolute transcendence.

Wright’s essay takes the form of confession. It is less literary criticism and more personal exploration on the part of a writer in love with words, and in love with Christ. He knows that his deep appreciation for the person he finds revolutionary, “radiant, and somewhat scary” is a “quaint absurdity in the eyes of so many I encounter in the literary world.”

While I do not doubt that Wright has encountered skepticism, I would offer that Image has managed to tip the balance toward respect and admiration for the literature of faith. Consider Christian Wiman, who edited Poetry magazine for a decade and is now a faculty member at the Yale Divinity School. His recent memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, has become an affirming guide for poets unsure whether the road of faith connects to the road of verse.

Books might build careers, but literary magazines build foundations. Before he published My Bright Abyss, Wiman published “God’s Truth Is Life” in Issue 60 (it later became a chapter of the book). The essay begins with a consideration of ambition, a necessary word in business but a dirty word for artists. Wiman is more honest than most at the top of his profession. The essay depicts a writer’s soul wrangling with the intersection of art and public identity:

One must have devotion to be an artist, and there’s no way of minimizing its cost. But still, just as in religious contexts, there is a kind of devotion that is, at its heart, escape. These days I am impatient with poetry that is not steeped in, marred and transfigured by, the world. By that I don’t mean poetry that has “social concern” or is meticulous with its descriptions, but a poetry in which you can feel that the imagination of the poet has been both charged and chastened by a full encounter with the world and other lives.

Wiman’s poetic paradox: to write is to be selfish, to have ambition, and yet there is a “terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself,” the soul of art. This soul, this “crisis of consciousness,” is God. At least for Wiman; he knows “no name for it besides.” Only the ambitious poet might near God, though that same ambition makes one pine for publications and prizes: “So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.” Better to pursue the Holy Ghost, because, as Wiman notes, “we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God but of being subjected to God—our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God.”

Wiman’s spiritual ars poetica is the finest I’ve ever read. It contains thoughts rather than theses, conjectures rather than conclusions. This is the work of Image: seek, hope to find, and recognize that discovery might take a form that we cannot hold or articulate. To return to Cording, “we can never be finished with mystery…. The more we come to know it, the more we realize its difference from everything else. Mystery, like beauty, is not governed by concepts. It does not allow a conclusion. It goes beyond the evidence.”

Wiman continues this thread: through a literature of faith, we are not really seeking to discover the “extraordinary within the ordinary.” We are, “for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.” Here is to more of that search: on the page, and beyond.


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