Poetry Review: Christian Wiman’s “Zero at the Bone” — A Bulwark Against Despair
By Ann Leamon
Christian Wiman’s new book takes readers on an exhilarating, confounding, comforting, and surprisingly fresh intellectual journey
Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair by Christian Wiman. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 320 pages, $30.
Christian Wiman’s 14th book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, would be a strong competitor among my picks for a “marooned on a desert island” reading club. In this volume, the award-winning poet, editor, translator, essayist, and theologian supplies a deeply thoughtful, multilayered exploration of the nature of despair — its origins, relationship to faith, and how we live in its enduring presence. His sources include the Biblical and the modern, saints and children, poems, essays, and criticism. The result is an exhilarating, confounding, comforting, and surprisingly fresh intellectual journey.
As promised in the subtitle, the volume is organized into 50 entries and two bracketing pieces, both called “Zero.” Its title comes from the closing line of Emily Dickinson’s poem 1096, in which she reacts to being startled at seeing a snake — whose Biblical role sparks plenty of associations. As do the entries in this energetic, unfailingly literate assemblage, fueled, as Wiman aptly notes, by his “Ninja blender of a mind.”
Rather than indulging in lectures about depression, Wiman explores how a multifarious examination of despair can generate experiences of discovery and delight. The entries range from a single poem — usually by Wiman — to a collection of extracts of work from poets across history and nationality. There is personal material as well, which includes Wiman’s meditation on his child’s comments at bedtime and an eventually hopeful essay that portrays his chaotic and horrific family of origin. In less skilled hands, this biographical material might make for an odd fit with all the highbrow cogitation — it could come off as disjointed, even confusing. But Wiman has carefully interwoven the autobiographical and the speculative, gradually building up his argument against surrendering to angst.
The initiating essay — the introductory “Zero” — gives us a sense of what we’re in for. “I want to write a book true to the storm of forms and needs, the intuitions and impossibilities, that I feel myself to be. That I feel life to be.” This braces us for the piece’s final paragraph, which plunges us into the book’s central conundrum:
When you’re young … despair has an alluring quality. You … stroke it gently like a sedated leopard. Eventually the drug wears off…. There never was a leopard. It’s just you.… Who are you now? Which way is home? And what, pray tell, is the source of this slowly rousing growl?
Wiman’s ambitious goal: to investigate how others have answered these questions, how they defined despair and learned to live with it — and to inspire us to come up with our own answers.
Be warned: Zero at the Bone is not a guide to salvation or an exercise in high-toned self-help. Wiman is filled with doubts and shares them with wry humor. The first entry, “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” considers the nature and role of prayer, as Wiman tries to soothe a wakeful four-year-old. His suggestion that she pray to God and ask for good thoughts receives the following response:
“Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.… I asked God [once] to turn me into a unicorn and” — she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug — “look how that’s worked out.’
From this innocent statement, Wiman delves into how the power of prayer was described by 17th- and 20th-century poets, 13th-century mystics, and others. This discussion raises an important paradoxical thread that runs throughout the book: the omnipresence of duality when it comes to making sense of God, despair, and faith. Wiman argues that the God of the Old Testament also encompasses “No-God,” the latter a literal consideration of God’s primal pronouncement, via Isaiah (44:6-8), that “there is no God beside me.” Life is so precious, the poet concludes, because it is wedded to death — faith embraces doubt.
This unnerving tension is beautifully described in Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The Place Where We Are Right”:
When we think we are right we inevitably close ourselves off from the pursuit of the truth. Wiman (and Amichai) contend that it is only through humility, shaped by the emptiness of doubt and the vulnerability of love, that we become open to faith and growth.
As the entries unfold, Wiman builds to his conclusion. What is our defense against despair? His answer is human relationships that strive for true understanding, that welcome a meeting of open minds. Considering a poem by Ralph Dickey, he suggests that “meaning is real only when it is reproduced — only, that is, when it makes its way from one mind to another.”
But part of that relationship must be an honest acceptance of oneself. Thomas Merton, the modern monk, writes:
Many poets are not poets for the same reason that religious men and women are not saints; they never succeed in … being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God.… They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet or some other saint.
Other selections in this specific entry, which like the others in the book follow each other without explanation, go on to emphasize this point, one of the most effective being a quote from Robert Graves’s poem “Flying Crooked.” This delightful testament to the value of the cabbage moth’s erratic flight path underlines Wiman’s embrace of idiosyncrasy as a strength: “Even the aerobatic swift/Has not his flying-crooked gift.”
Given this admiration for the flutter of the helter skelter, Zero at the Bone is not about dangling facile solutions for contemporary angst. While receiving chemotherapy — a situation ripe for despair if ever there were one — Wiman quotes, and then responds to, the theologian Miroslav Volk:
… some thinkers believe all existence is intertwined and some believe there is a crack that runs through creation. For the first group, the task of existence is to match one’s mind to that original unity. For the latter the task is one of repair, resistance, and/or rescue.
Predictably, I find myself in both camps. I think all creation is unified: the expression of this feeling is called faith. And I think a crack runs through all creation; that crack is called consciousness.
Wiman’s combination of poetry and theology, criticism and memoir is breath-taking, heady, and challenging, inviting endless opportunities for rereading, for gleaning new insights, for coming to different conclusions. The sources are so varied that I wish he had provided a reading list!
The book’s concluding “Zero” chapter notes that we can never say we are “out” of despair. Given our modern world — filled with its casual violence, political catastrophes, possible extinctions via the atomic bomb and/or the climate crisis — despair inevitably surrounds us. Wiman responds to this hopelessness with a collection of brilliant insights that, keeping the writer’s skepticism in mind, might serve as a bulwark.
Ann Leamon’s writing spans the genres and has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Review, Tupelo Quarterly, MicroLit Almanac, North Dakota Quarterly, and River Teeth, among others. She holds a BA (Honors) in German from Dalhousie University/University of King’s College, an MA in Economics from the University of Montana, and an MFA in Poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She has attended residencies at the Prospect Street Writing House, Blackfly Writing Program at the Haystack School, Stonecoast Writers Program, and Dorland Mountain Artists Colony. She lives on the coast of Maine with her husband and a Corgi-Lab mix.