Kill the CreaturePrint
In search of snakes—and the balm of charity and love in a world of infinitely lonely space
By Christian Wiman
March 4, 2015
I have always loved snakes. Love includes fear—for everyone, I think, but in the religious mind these emotions are married like grace and necessity, abundance and destitution. Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself, cries wise wild old Isaiah, and let him be your dread.
Recently I mentioned my lifelong fascination with snakes in the presence of my mother, who has perhaps the most—how to describe it exactly?—saturated, unmediated, sorrowful, solitary, and relentlessly religious mind that I know. Her faith has survived her own parents’ violent deaths, which she witnessed as a child; and the violent rot of the one real romantic love she would ever know; and the inexplicable and inaccessible lives of her children, who have been homeless, and in prison, and drug addicts, and art addicts, and otherwise enamored of serpents. She flinched and objected as if I’d proclaimed a latent Satanism.
In childhood I would seek them out in the empty lots across from the apartment complex in Mesquite, or back of the train tracks in Brenham, or in the scrub that filled the gulch behind our house in Snyder, or in any of the other half-dozen Texas towns where we lived and that exist in me now as little more than random flashes and failures of memory. All these homeplaces, dreamplaces, doomplaces we carry around in our heads, as if the room were never quite right for the holy loneliness for which we seek both animation and ease.
The deepest being being a longing
to satisfy a longing for a solitude of two.
Why does one create? Two reasons: an overabundance of life and a deficiency of it; a sense that reality has called out in such a way that only your own soul can answer (“I create in return,” said Robert Duncan) and a simultaneous sense that in that word soul is a hole that no creation of your own can ever quite fill. That long response that Job finally draws out of God, that blast of Arctic rhetoric—Have you gone down to the springs of the sea / or walked in the unfathomable deep?—what is this but the first form and final fruition, ratification and sharp rebuke, of all the poetry of loneliness? If there is consolation here, it is a cold one, a solidarity of starlight.
Kill the creature. That’s practically the law where I grew up. Love has its sterner permutations, its “austere and lonely offices,” an almost linguistic embeddedness in particular existence that precludes translation into another. I love you, the Father says to humanity as he assents again to humanity’s endless need to annihilate him. I love you, I said to my father 30 years ago with a fist to the side of his face. He—my father, I mean, or think I mean—is demented now and has just escaped again from another icy facility, each time by pretending to be the doctor that he in fact once was. Cunning man, deciding even the terms of his own dementia, carrying himself from place to place like a bag of stolen bones.
At an oil field construction job I had one summer, we worked for a month at a defunct refinery and every day laid out the day’s take like a line of Italian eels for sale. Rattlesnakes, garter snakes, blacksnakes, rat snakes, water snakes, lots of king snakes, thick and garish but completely harmless, helpful even, as they savor vermin. I remember two men tossing one of those whipping red-black serpents back and forth in the air like a live electric cord to see who was man enough to catch it. To calm it—as only one man could, gentling the creature to the point where it wrapped around his arm and practically licked his whiskers—until with a deft flick and flash its head spurted away from his sudden switchblade. (I also saw him do this—not the throwing part—with a rattlesnake that was coiled to strike.)
Then one morning I looked closely at one of the dull, dead king snakes and saw a band of yellow between the black and red, and when I pointed it out, the foreman knew not the name but the rhyme that was meant to keep people away from it: Red and yellow kill a fellow. It turned out to be a coral snake, the bite of which—because we were far from any hospital, and because coral snakes are extremely rare in West Texas and, unlike the other poisonous snakes around, require a very specific type of antivenom—would almost certainly have been fatal. I felt an excitement akin to sexual arousal, an almost spiritual joy. Was I realizing that this was part of my life now, this strange and vaguely dangerous story (though it seems pretty much impossible that those men played catch with this snake—probably it was severed by one of the big machines)? Or did the excitement come from the realization that my life was a story, that I had some control over what seemed to me—my father vanishing, my mother wracked with rage and faith, my siblings sinking into drugs and alcohol, my own mind burning at night like an oil fire on water—complete chaos? Selves are nothing but memories of selves, and memories but the wispy entities that time and mind have conspired to keep. It’s a wonder we don’t walk through each other like ghosts.
The term kenosis refers to the kind of self-emptying that God performed in both the incarnation and the crucifixion. It is not a “sacrifice” but a complete erasure for the sake of something greater. It is not reality but relationship that is greater. That is to say, it is not reality as we now know it, but the one we intuit at times by means of relationship—both with matter and with other minds. When God entered contingency, when the miracle of existence—that Being should be at all—became the bare, implacable fact of matter, there was no going back: either the incarnation is absolute, or it simply didn’t happen. Either God is gone, or he never was.
In traditional Judeo-Christian religion—certainly the one I grew up in—the woman gets blamed for biting that apple of ultimate knowledge and bringing sin and death into the world. Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? The misery this has engendered for women, the lives lost to the misunderstandings and manipulations of myth and how it means—in some sense a whole religion was wrecked on the shoals of a certain kind of mythological and poetic illiteracy that has only increased as we have matured in other ways:
Woman is more guilty than man, because she was seduced by Satan, and so diverted her husband from obedience to God that she was an instrument of death leading to all perdition. It is necessary that woman recognize this, and that she learn to what she is subjected; and not only against her husband. This is reason enough why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame.
Thus John Calvin in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, which is what made the modern mind—its rationalism and individualism, its vital and lethal skepticism—possible. Thus the whole phalanx of unconsciously priapic preachers inveighing against the sweet disease that was gradually filling my adolescent body to bursting: woman. Just one taste and—Bam!—the end of Eden.
Which, at 15, was all I wanted. Even as the preachers poured down their fire on my head, all I could think of was the sweaty sex that first bite, because it was shared, must surely have led to, the momentary but absolute release of it, how lewd and illicit and finally fucking free it must have been, how almost worth it, really, like the “free bloody birds” I would immediately recognize in Philip Larkin years later:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Larkin’s poem is ironic, of course: we all dream some freedom we were ourselves denied. Or does this even happen anymore? I can’t imagine teenagers these days are any more sexually active or inventive than they were among the eternal afternoons and tutorial goats of Snyder, Texas. Even Larkin’s poem concedes this, though metaphysically rather than physically: Larkin’s times did change, though the meanings, or the meaninglessness—the ending image is inexhaustibly provocative—did not. And what that image points back to is Genesis itself: the Lord’s face moving on the face of the deep, glass that could comprehend the sun (that is, no separation between mind and matter, e.g., scientific materialism, most modern poetry, all mysticism), some sheer clarity of existence that both saves and rives you.
But, as I say, this all lay in wait for me. I didn’t, couldn’t imagine the loneliness that must have come between Adam and Eve, the selves they suddenly were—and thus forever weren’t, quite. For that’s what Eve brought into the world, consciousness, or perhaps more accurately the sin of separating consciousness from God. The loneliness no human love can ever quite answer. And if you are not lonely under this dividing and indifferent blue, if you do not feel, even amid your moments of happiness, some absolute inwardness that is absolute otherness, then friend, you are either preternaturally enlightened or completely unconscious.
But would you have it otherwise? Eve ought to get some credit for bringing consciousness into existence, for the music and art and poetry that have arisen from that rift; and for better—speculating here, but it seems likely—sex; and then too the intricacies of atoms, the impossibly immense cosmos, microbes and multiverses and all that falls under the name of human knowledge, all the wonders wasted on atheists who must have their line in the sand, wasted on believers who do not have within them the hard unerring eye of the atheist that enables them to see that line in the sand—all this, too, we owe to a woman. Paradise is the purity no one ever wanted.
And anyway, Paradise was poisoned from the start. “Let me tell you something,” says God to the first murderer in Howard Nemerov’s poem “Cain”: “I was the snake in the garden.” “I can believe that,” Cain says without pause or surprise,
but nobody else will.
I see it so well, that You are the master of the will
That works two ways at once, whose action
Is its own punishment, the cause
That is its own result. It will be pain to me
To reject You, but I do it, in Your own world,
Where everything that is will speak of You,
And I will be deaf.
As it happens, it’s God who goes deaf in the poem, at least to the cries of Cain—which is to say, deaf to the cries of all of us. And it is Cain whose hearing grows only more excruciatingly acute:
But He is gone, I feel His absence.
As, after the storm’s black accent,
The light grows wide and distinct again,
So he is gone. Of all He said to me,
Only one thing remains. I send you away,
He said: Cain, I send you away.
But where is Away?
Precisely. Home and homelessness, election and rejection, autonomy and determinism, humanity and divinity: it’s all one screaming weave. If I had not come and spoken to them, says God himself in one of the most disturbing and enlightening passages in the Bible (John 15:22), they would not have sin. The outraged objection here is obvious—God is a sadistic puppetmaster—and pointless. Some people can think their way to theories in which contingency and certainty are compatible terms (modern physicists, for example); a rarer few—mystics and artists, mostly—can on occasion actually feel it. (“Time’s violence rends the soul,” says Simone Weil. “By the rent eternity enters.”) But in both instances the insight is partial and fugitive, disabling as well as enabling, because the flash of insight reveals a vastness no human insight will ever reach, and painful precisely because of how intimate that distance suddenly seemed. That intimate distance is God, in whom we move and live and have our being. Until we don’t. We’re all hunger artists of one sort or another, eating ourselves (our “selves”) inward, trying to slake a hunger we usually can’t even—or perhaps just won’t dare to—name.
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
According to Weil, we must try to annihilate the self, which is what separates us from God:
We possess nothing in the world—a mere chance can strip us of everything—except the power to say “I.” That is what we have to give to God—in other words, to destroy. There is absolutely no other free act which it is given us to accomplish—only the destruction of the “I.”
There is a real truth here, but it is in a strange way distorted by the very clarity and austerity with which it is presented. Christianity teaches that we are to put others first, are to efface ourselves and our own needs. But to efface is not to erase, not completely; complete kenosis is possible only for God. In the end it is never quite clear to me what Weil means by the “self” unless it’s simply every single thing that makes us human—or perhaps more accurately, every single thing that makes us individually human. “The reality of the world,” Weil writes, “is the result of our attachment. It is the reality of the self which we transfer into things. It has nothing to do with independent reality. That is only perceptible through total detachment. Should one thread remain, there is still attachment.”
No way. If there is a reality distinct from our perception of it, there is no way we can reach it. This does not mean that we are all there is, each a king of infinite—and infinitely lonely—space. What it means is that reality is catalyzed by engagement, not detachment. In 1818, John Keats intuited this, when he identified some aspects of reality that seemed to require a “greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist.” In the 200 years since, this bit of poetic intuition has come to a kind of physical fruition in science.
In the famous two-slit experiment of quantum physics, electrons are seen to behave as particles or waves depending upon whether someone is watching them. The physicist John Wheeler wondered what would happen if he observed the electrons after the fact of their having passed through a barrier, if the register were placed not in front of the barrier but on the other side. As John Horgan writes in The End of Science,
The electrons seem to know in advance how the physicist will choose to observe them. … The electron … is neither a wave nor a particle. It is in some sense unreal; it exists in an indeterminant limbo. “Not until you start asking a question do you get something,” Wheeler said. “The situation cannot declare itself until you’ve asked your question. But the asking of one question prevents and excludes the asking of another.”
Where is an incarnate “God” in this scenario? What is the “self” and how does it stand in relation to God? “The word ‘God’ becomes necessary,” writes Robert Duncan, “where there is an intense feeling of presence and oneness in opposites, an awe that cannot let go of contradictory elements, of an otherness in which I am more truly ‘I.’ ”
to be exact),
on being not
this, not that,
a fat black snake.
Up surged a cheer
were grunts, squints,
it would take
a lunatic acuity
the fat black snake
as the asphalt
under all ten tons
flat as the landscape
I could see
no end of,
flat as the affect
of distant killing
it would take a native
to know was love.
To attend is to atone. There is no looking at reality “straight up,” so to speak. “The mathematical descriptions of the physical world given to us by quantum theory presuppose the existence of observers who lie outside those mathematical descriptions,” writes the physicist Stephen Barr. In other words, there is nowhere to stand in order to be outside of what you are examining, for the object of observation is changed by the act of observation. Every gesture toward absolute human knowledge reaches right back to and with that first hand grabbing the apple. Even our equations implicate us.
This is not news, I realize. It is thought to be a discovery of the modern era, from Nietzsche’s famous “There are no facts, only interpretations” right on through the confirmations of this statement from modern physics. But as usual, science has simply confirmed what poets and proper theologians always—“knew,” I was going to say, but that would be wrong, unless knowing is always alert to the ultimate truth that it cannot know any ultimate truth, including the one this sentence is attempting to articulate. This is the ouroboros, the snake with its tail in its mouth. There is nowhere to stand and see, nowhere to escape the stink of being human. To attend is to atone.
what the eye flies after trans-
you want, doesn’t want: it vanishes …
you’re only yours, mutter and
muscles, as you enter it, its vanishing.
Gustaf Sobin (1935–2005), who wrote these lines, was a little-known American poet who spent most of his adult life in an abandoned silk cocoonery in Provence trying to respond to a call that he could neither identify nor escape. It’s a common dilemma for modern artists. (“What could I call what was calling me?” writes Fanny Howe. “A vocation that has no name.”) Sobin, who adhered to no particular religion, believed that divinity had “undergone eclipse” and thought of a line of poetry as a “traced erasure.” Contrary to modern psychology, articulating a dilemma does not always ease the anguish, as Sobin writes:
What hasn’t vanished, however, is the need—call it psychic imperative—that such an address exists. Long after the addressee has vanished, after the omniscient mirror has dissolved and its transcendent dimension has been dismantled, demystified, deconstructed, there remains—I insist—that psychic imperative deeply inscribed within the innermost regions of our being. We can’t do, it would seem, without something that isn’t.
Indeed we can’t. Nor could Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic who died nearly 700 years before Sobin: “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” Nor could Saint Paul, who was a contemporary of Jesus himself:
But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;
And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are …
The italics are mine, but the existential anguish—and the faith that makes that anguish not simply bearable but even joyful—is all Paul. We can’t do without something that isn’t.
Another summer, another job, we drained a tank, and my task, because I was a miserable menial high school student, was to trudge through the bottom muck in thigh-high waders, spearing the spirited creatures that thrashed and slithered as if the earth itself were acquiring primordial form and violent volition. I remember this, but can it be true? What snakes would have been down there? Water snakes, cottonmouths—I suppose, but such an infernal tangle? It seems unlikely from this distance. What stands out as incontrovertible fact is the sudden, massive, mud-covered reptile sliced in half by a backhoe, writhing its red stub of blood in the air like a giant’s arm severed at the shoulder.
My father lost half of his foot to an adolescent rattler coiled in the bushes under his window in the ranch house where he lived outside Fort Worth. He was drunk and had locked himself outside. Thus the window. He was wearing only gym shorts and a T-shirt and had simply wanted to sit out on his porch while the sun went down. He had no phone, no wallet, no hidden spare key.
My father is a man in whom life thrives as a form of death. There is a cancerous élan to him, a mind of maggots that have learned to eat with just such modest ferocity as will keep their host alive. About a year ago though, he began “failing to thrive,” a term I thought existed only for infants until the hospice workers, who will take over only when a person’s end is imminent, told me otherwise. He withered to a hundred pounds (he is six feet tall), never left his bed, and eventually refrained from all speech excepting sudden floods of psychotic invective and rage. No medical reason could explain the catastrophe taking place inside this 69-year-old man. It seemed, like everything else about him, willful. Failure to thrive had it exactly backwards.
It’s a matter of days, they said, as his organs began to shut down. It can’t be long now, as they removed the feeding tube and discontinued all treatments that were not palliative in nature. I was there for a 24-hour period, and he never moved a muscle, never opened an eye. Then said Jesus unto him, Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe. One morning he stood up. One morning while everyone waited for his last breath, he got out of bed completely naked, tore the tubes out of his arm, and told everyone to get the fuck out of his house.
He sucked the venom from his foot the best he could, fashioned a tourniquet out of his T-shirt (both actions only exacerbated the problem), and made his way about 200 yards to the highway. But because he was barefoot and thus subject to glass and stickers and what have you, and because the venom was rapidly making its way through his bloodstream, he was soon crawling and increasingly delirious. It is preferable to be bitten by an enormous old rattlesnake rather than a small young one, for the old snake has learned something of miraculous chance and venomous contingency, and it usually will not discharge its entire hoard. A young snake simply lets fly.
Just think how very old Satan must have been, even in Eden—though I suppose if we think of time beginning with the creation of the cosmos, and if we allow the myth to speak of that moment, then he was in his way every bit as young and even innocent as Eve. Are we then—humanity, I mean—suffering from a judicious dose to which the right antidote may yet be found, or has it all been one long strangling cry of dying?
A moment occurs in the life of a writer when one ceases to care about the truth, as if there were any sort of abstract objective word or occurrence that could warrant that name. I don’t mean one loses fidelity to the facts. I believe one should hew to the facts as one remembers them, even as it seems scientifically incontrovertible that memory is mostly an act of imagination. The ouroboros again.
No, what I mean has to do with meanings, or the lack thereof. It’s not that I don’t believe in them anymore, it’s that I believe they are ultimately unknowable, even the most intimate aspects of our existence, including the mutilations that made us what we are.
One follows the sounds. One follows them obsessively, religiously, if religion can be understood as having no sponsor, no ultima Thule, no final ground of meaning, which is not to say no God. (“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.”) One wants only the cadences to continue as if there were something in the words themselves that sought meaning—sought concretion, even—out there in the world, or something out there in the world that corresponded so intimately and utterly to the sounds of the words that the intensity and gravity of one particular existence—or even one moment within that existence—might catalyze the tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and every evil thing.
Including the mutilations that made us what we are. It’s a direct quote from the American philosopher Richard Rorty, and it’s from a footnote to a little dialogue he had with the Italian theologian Gianni Vattimo called The Future of Religion. Rorty, an American pragmatist who did not believe in God (he died in 2007), and Vattimo, an Italian Catholic who believes that all essential questions about God are unanswerable and therefore irrelevant, discover much common ground. If you find yourself hungering for something more than the “social cooperation” that, according to Rorty, the combination of modern science and common sense can offer, “then a religion that has been taken out of the epistemic arena, a religion that finds the question of theism versus atheism uninteresting, may be just what suits your solitude.”
Patronizing? Perhaps just a bit, but Vattimo serenely, if insidiously, agrees: “Things appear to us in the world,” he writes, “only because we are in their midst and always already oriented toward seeking a specific meaning for them.” (Keats!) Then Vattimo carries this logic to its natural conclusion: “Can we really argue, as I believe we must, that postmodern nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity?” I have mentioned this quote to some religious people I know, and every time their faces fall, but I can’t tell you how freeing I find the idea, because it accords so precisely with my own experience, which sometimes seems to be both animated and annihilated by nothingness. “Nihilism,” though, is not at all the right word, as it suggests an assertiveness and stasis that elsewhere Vattimo clearly refutes. “The meaning of Christianity as a message of salvation consists above all in dissolving the peremptory claims of ‘reality.’ ” And from a different book, Belief (the literal and much more revelatory translation of the original title is “I Believe That I Believe”): “Christ himself is the unmasker; and … the unmasking inaugurated by him … is the meaning of the history of salvation itself.”
Thus the old language, as well as the dynamic it enacts (redemption, salvation), is recovered and restored—not with any metaphysical assurance and certainly not permanently, as the next age will have to remake and reimagine (and, as the quotes from Eckhart and Paul reveal, recover) its own language for faith. But there is a kind of smelling-salt shock and astringency to such an approach, a recognition that, as physics has shown us, we cannot know the world independent of ourselves, but within such vertiginous existence, knowing that we do not know, the next step becomes possible. Myth and metaphor reacquire their kinship with the unconscious, and the dark matter (a metaphor, note) of reality becomes, instead of corrosively unknowable, the very terrain of faith. Poetry is the only sanity.
was worthier than the grief that forced the question
remittent grace of the impossible.
After the second of my father’s four wives died, he and I went to East Africa to visit her missionary daughter and son-in-law. I have written of this elsewhere. I have written of all of this elsewhere in one way or another because let me tell you, any writer who claims writing is a calling and not an obsession is either blessed or afflicted with youth or dementia. I have been addicted to opiates in my life and I must say that there is a kinship between that flood of half-sane but aim-able elation that opiates engender and the release of meaning when the right sounds are linked together.
Notice I do not put meaning in quotes here. I am a Christian. Which means that I have faith. Or had it once, and with such enlivening force that to deny it now would be a denial of life itself. (“All I do is try to stay on the side of belief,” says a priest in Fanny Howe’s novel Indivisible.) What is truth? says postmodern Pilate to the man whose life has suddenly called everything into question. Christ crucified is not the answer to that question, but a call and catalyzing means to act upon it.
They—the missionaries—went to immense trouble to get their black lab Brandy (an innocent naming, I feel quite sure—a spiritless one, let us say) shipped first to Europe for a few weeks and then to Nairobi and then trucked over the Serengeti to the hellhole dirtshit city in far western Tanzania where they lived. Lived happily, I should say, all eight of them, with their homegrown butter beans and their motorcycles, their drawling Swahili and inflexible fundamentalisms, their abashing acts of charity and unselfconscious compassion, their many multicolored lizards that every night crawled down the walls into their names. Alfie, Little Peep, Shanga-shanga.
How happy they—again, the missionaries—were the day of that dog’s arrival. It was beautiful domestic ecstasy, the children all bounding around the yard, the dog lost in an orgy of olfactory intoxications. Well of course you know where this is going. You with your savvy, secular distance, your ironized idealisms, you who think, What the fuck do they think they’re doing anyway, these rubes, bringing the false balm of God to bear upon these ferociously real wounds? You. Suddenly from under a corner of the porch strikes the black mamba your own mind has made, and the children, delicately schooled in loss by the months of Brandy’s absence, are now in absolute session.
I remember eating rattlesnake at some fair somewhere—Fort Worth, probably, Weatherford, Sweetwater, who knows. Inch-thick slabs toothpicked on a platter someone must have served. I was four or five. My parents were separated again, and my mother was surviving by taking in boarders, all of whom had growling Harleys and cigarette-smelling beards and huge black boots. My mother has no memory of this—the particular boarders—so here we go round the rattlesnake again. It tasted like chicken. Of course it did. Live long enough and even memory begins to taste like chicken. Or rattlesnake.
It was a young couple who finally stopped in the darkness—for it had become quite dark—to help my father. What a brave pair of people, pulling over in the night and then not racing away at the sight of this hairy hellbound hallucinating ogre on his knees like some insane supplicant. Nothing is more terrifying, more viscerally repulsive, than the animal will for survival, that creature more creature than we are, who will eat razor wire and lick shit from jackboots if he has to, that maw of meaningless breathing down which, when the real crisis of survival comes, our “self” is sucked like vegetable cuttings roared down the disposal.
(But this sort of self-destruction, according to Weil, does not work. Is too late. The self that is destroyed from the outside rather than from the inside is subject only to degradation and humiliation, an erasure that raises nothing in its wake. Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken, says Jesus, but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.)
How did it play out? Did she want to stop and he didn’t, or was it the reverse? And was it goodness or guilt, or the two raveled too closely together to separate? Or did they simply stop without a word because they were Christians, and to be a Christian is to know “that the only truth revealed to us by scripture, the one that can never be demythologized in the course of time—since it is not an experimental, logical, or metaphysical statement but a call to practice—is the truth of love, of charity.” (Vattimo again.) That’s the only explanation the doctors gave, that the people, whom we never met, and who left no names, had described themselves as Christians.
There remain the snakes. Lying like animate mud or coagulations of creek water straight and sun-glutted on the concrete spillway spilling just a little trickle of run-off just this side of drought. The creek is Barton Springs, and in a few months it will rise up like the fountains of the deep and trap me at the ranch for 10 days. But now it is midmorning, south Texas, 1994, and I have come to this 300-acre ranch to be alone for six months to work on a poem. I know. It makes me smile to think of it too, though at least now I am able to feel some affection for the confusedly devout and overserious self that I was. It was a worthy expenditure of life, whatever the results. And also the long and anything-but-lazy afternoons when I read Proust and Shakespeare, every word of each, shouting sometimes to the errant longhorns that had jumped the five-foot fence (who knew a cow could jump like that?): She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them.
And occasionally there were weekend visitors, like my father and his third wife, both of whom, the very first time we were crossing the creek, suddenly pulled out pistols and began firing methodically into water that, they swore, had a minute before been the most massive snake.
But mainly I was there to finish a poem, one long poem that went to the heart of what I heard like a little trickle of bedraggled rainwater in my brain, way-back water from my family’s origins in ruin that was real and thus redemptive. By “real” I mean ruin that has metaphysical status. I mean suffering that is, if not ordained, at least contained within an apprehensible arena of action and consequence, affliction and redemption. I mean something in which I had no faith but for the faith in language that led me on.
And leads me on. Here, now, two decades later, creeping through the ordinary midmorning light of my own mind in search of snakes. They are always there if it is hot, just up from the water basking where the dirt road turns to concrete, at least three or four, sometimes eight or 10—and they always know that I am coming. I tiptoe down toward the water, trying to be so comprehensively gone that their seismographic skins and tripwire tongues that sense everything will sense, for once, nothing. But even frozen I must breathe. Even out of sight I am in the sleepy eons of their brains as they melt back into the mud, deliquesce in the dirty water I would not, will not, cannot for the life of me wade into now.
But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, Childe!
And I reply’d, My Lord.
Here’s how it ends. Once, driving with a woman going mad, I stopped to see a snake. It was on a hot back road in a dead flat place, and we whipped right over it though I could see—no, I knew— immediately that it had been entirely untouched. It reared up defiantly in the middle of the road and stared at us—at me, as I was the one getting out of the car and advancing toward it despite the tremulous protests of the woman who was going mad. “Going mad” is perhaps not fair or accurate, as it implies a drama and energy she entirely lacked. Say that two years earlier a scintilla of intolerable sorrow had entered her like a drop of ink in water, and now night was almost all she was. Kill the creature, I thought to myself on that hot blacktop, which is odd since I am essentially the opposite of the wanton boy I was and now can hardly bring myself to kill a spider in the house. I gave the snake—a rat snake, a blacksnake, an anonymous and everywhere kind of snake—a little nudge with my foot to get it moving off the road, but it only angered and tried to strike me. So I stood for a second staring out at the eternal, infernal fields of my childhood, then went back to the car and the woman who would shortly undergo every amalgam of abrasive chemical astringents that would do no good, and radical electroshock that would do no good, and prayer that would do no good. She was huddled in the passenger seat whimpering something softly to herself. What could I say? To attend is to atone? Nihilism constitutes the actual truth of Christianity? I’m sorry, I said to the windshield, and to the woman going mad, and to the child I had not realized was so immanent in me that it was he who had insisted I get out of that car, he who stood over that harmless blacksnake gently touching it with his tennis shoe, he who stopped and stared out at the godshocked wasteland with a gaze so reciprocally blank it would take a native to know it was love.
Christian Wiman is the author most recently of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer and a volume of poems, Once in the West. He is a senior lecturer in religion and literature at Yale University's Institute of Sacred Music.