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Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair

Christian Wiman
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2023

Christian Wiman’s intellect is profound, his faith gritty and honest, and his life story incredible. It is hard to believe someone raised in minimally functional circumstances in West Texas would rise to first be editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine and then go on to become a faculty member at Yale Divinity School (the sort of school, he points out in this book, that never would have admitted him as a student). Add to that his ongoing cancer story—now approaching 20 years—with Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, a rare and incurable malady that has almost taken his life on several occasions—and I find myself reading, at times, with a lump in my throat. 

I’ve been paying attention to Wiman’s work since My Bright Abyss was published in 2013. I have read that seminal book three times, and each time discover more. Although Wiman is a poet, My Bright Abyss is not poetry. Instead, it is a collection of meditations, often in short snippets, on the nature of faith in the modern world, sort of a modern collection of thoughts ala Pascal’s Penses. 

Wiman has also published collections of poetry, a memoir on becoming a poet, translations of other poets, criticism, and more theological meditations. In Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, he’s put his explorations of all these genres under one cover. 

Do not be deceived (like I was initially) by the book’s subtitle. This is not Wiman’s version of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. I’m not sure the subtitle is quite correct. It’s more like “Fifty Entries from the Depths of Despair.” Maybe it’s the word “against” that threw me. Do not go into this book expecting some sort of pick-me-up-feel-good “I have cancer but God loves me so everything’s okay” sort of book. Nor is it an “I’m dying but look at the wonders of this magical world” collection. Instead, expect this: “I had—have –cancer. I have been living with it—dying with it—so long now that it bores me, or baffles me, or drives me into the furthers crannies of literature and theology in search of something that will both speak and spare my own pain.” (8) 

There are actually 52 entries here, a “zero” entry at the beginning and another “zero” entry at the end. I might suggest the 52 entries lend themselves to the slow reading this book deserves. Take one a week over the course of a year. This is a book to be read deliberately. I do not think it is possible to rush through it, nor do I think one ought to make that attempt. If you’re going to get involved with it, please give it the time and attention it deserves. 

The book begins with an essay “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” that weaves memoir and theology with a light touch drawn from impossibly adorable things Wiman’s twin daughters said as young girls. The next entry explores Wallace Stevens’s poem, “Domination of Black,” and we’re suddenly far removed from cute childhood stories. That chapter, and the rest of the book, might do with a “fasten your seatbelts, there is turbulence ahead,” warning. 

Despair is the thread that holds these disparate entries together. I’m not sure who said, “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention,” but that attitude is a given here. If you have the nerve to stare into modern life without medicating and distracting yourself through consumption or sports or addiction or denial-based extreme politics or some other coping mechanism, you will experience despair. There is much to despair over: the climate, war, political polarization, pandemics, racial injustice, Christian Nationalism, the 81%, and on and on. 

“I woke this morning so leaden I could hardly rouse myself from bed. I clutched for despair, but all the loyal life buoys—failure, self-contempt, God’s ‘absence’—drifted out of reach. I felt . . . nothing, my whole being as solid and insentient as a piece of wood or a pair of pliers.” (60)

I feel the weight of that, but also am smiling as he compares himself to a pair of pliers. He goes on to wonder how someone who as a child felt the two most interminable aspects of life were church and school (“Both seemed so geologically dull I felt my arteries hardening.”) now teaches in a graduate divinity school. His occupation is, among other things, evidence of God’s sense of humor. “Some people can’t conceive of a god who can’t suffer. I can’t conceive of a god who can’t laugh.” The day Wiman is writing about is a teaching day, and his class is saved by a line from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. In class, God becomes a verb, “and I was rescued by a revelation so tiny it would take a crazy and holy attention to see it as such.”

Maybe the book should be called “Tiny Revelations,” although that probably wouldn’t sell. We want big revelations. Instead, we get a title drawn from Emily Dickinson, vivid and yet also abstract. I don’t fully comprehend what zero at the bone means in Dickinson’s poem about a snake, but I like the sound of it. I do know that Wiman’s book is an exercise in the “crazy and holy attention” it takes to live and love in our world. 

What does it mean to have faith in a despair-inducing world? What does it mean, as Wendell Berry put it, to “be joyful though you have considered all the facts”? 

This is the canvas Wiman works on, over and over. There really is no one else like him, and it is our privilege to be alive at the time he is. Go into Zero at the Bone with your eyes open and don’t be in a hurry. Expect depth and mystery and you won’t be disappointed. You may even find someone’s hand to hold in the dark. 

One Comment

  • Barb says:

    I thought “zero at the bone” meant the writer/narrator or the poem felt frozen, still, awful, immobile, maybe gripped by fear when she encounters the slithering snake. Some people are terrified by snakes and cannot move when they see one. I want to read this book because despair can do that.

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