A review of Zero at the Bone by Christian Wiman

Reviewed by Mike Panasitti

Zero at the Bone:
Fifty Entries Against Despair
by Christian Wiman
Farrar Straus Giroux
May 2024, Hardcover, 320 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0374603458

Christian Wiman’s Zero at the Bone combines memoir, poetry, literary as well as theological observations, and even a smidgeon of fiction to create a mixed-genre work “true to the storm of form and needs, the intuitions and impossibilities,” that the author feels himself and “life to be.” 

As its subtitle makes clear, the work is a treatise “against despair,” an affliction of the soul Wiman is well-acquainted with: not only was he Poetry magazine’s editor for a decade—sifting through submissions that culled the depths of human emotion, but he has been battling a rare form of cancer for nearly 20 years.   Even though it partially defines his being, Wiman craves relief from the factuality and truth of despair evident in much of the Modernist poetic corpus.

Previous to publishing this book, Wiman anthologized a volume of poetry dedicated to joy, and joy is what he contrasts despair to.  What, however, brings joy?  For Wiman, the answer is found in the spiritual wellbeing that both faith and poetry can deliver.

Despite this potential for faith and poetry—faith in poetry—to create wellbeing, Wiman, who has long championed form and objective narration over free verse and confessionalism states, “The unfortunate reality is that most poets are willing to linger in and reflect on spiritual and emotional realms that most people only inhabit with the utmost reluctance.”

Rather than linger in malaise, Wiman argues for a responsible poetic remedy: “There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute—and perhaps even annihilating—awe.”

Wiman’s poetic raison d’etre is ebullient.  He advocates for awe, for “disabling joy” in poetry, and being an unapologetic theist, he makes a compelling case for poems that express wonder in a divine entity, in a poet’s humble capacity to surrender, to write about and celebrate an attitude best summarized by the saying, ‘Not my will, Lord, but yours.’  

The catch here of course, and this is where Wiman deviates from what could be called “naïve” Christianity, is that Wiman concedes things are not all good with God.  Wiman argues that the lesson imparted by the Biblical book of Job compellingly illustrates this latter point.  Punished by God as a result of a wager that the divinity makes with Satan, Job exemplifies how believers practice not only “Submission to God [but, often] aggression against God”—the latter as a response to God’s own aggressions toward the faithful.  

Wiman, whose ongoing struggle with cancer is a topic of sustained reflection in Zero at the Bone, also addresses the parallels between prayer and poetry.  If the function of prayer is to make the supplicant “fit for…the physical world around us, the severest of whose terms is death,” so does writing and reading poetry similarly allow us to circumvent living death, by granting the poetically-inclined at least momentary respite from the grasp of aesthetic somnolence many of us are in during our waking lives.

Wiman declares that life requires “’believing’ in something more than matter,” it requires grace.  And what is gracious?  According to Wiman, graciousness is achieved by acknowledging another’s wish for immortality.  He points to the love we feel for children and art as an almost universally recognized expression of this acknowledgement, both children and art being expressions of parents’ or artists’ desire to endure beyond the earthly time granted to them.

Recognized as a prominent neo-formalist who argues that the raw materials of poetry are experience and imagination, Wiman argues that the function of the latter is to perceive and create forms from the former.  We hunger to see form, figures in clouds, faces in abstract artwork, and a “hunger to truly see—and thereby to truly be…has animated every work ever made.”

Poetry gives suffering form, and giving suffering form is an antidote to despair.  Yet content matters, too.  For Wiman, much confessionalism is “an idolatry of suffering…an outrage that no person (or group) has suffered as we have, or simply a solipsistic withdrawal that leaves us maniacally describing every detail of our cells.  And selves.  We are our wounds, it seems, and without them will not exist.”

Unsurprisingly, Wiman does not exalt his psychic wounds, and in particular does not make a spectacle of his ailing body.  He points to a tension between the notions of “despair as affliction and despair as sustenance” and favors the latter as a poetic ethos.

While in previous works, Wiman has not flinched from binary thinking, from proposing explanatory schemes of either/or that if looked at closely are no more than conceptual strawmen erected for the sake of argument, Zero at the Bone is the work of a more mature thinker, one comfortable in the realm of paradox and with the coexistence of conceptual opposites.  “Why does one create?” asks Wiman and responds, “[t]wo reasons: an overabundance of life and a deficiency of it.”  It is the ability to see paradox:  surplus and lack of life, overabundance in deficiency and vice versa, that animates the poet.  Wiman is an advocate for the conjunction “and,” for a poetic appreciation of paradoxical tension, and for him the best poetry explores the coexistences of seeming antinomies such as faith and despair or melancholy and contentment.  

Wiman writes, “W.H. Auden once defined poetry as the clear expression of mixed feelings.”  He maintains it is the acceptance of mixed feelings that defines the mature poet, but to what end?  Wiman quotes Seamus Heany: ‘The end of art is peace,’ but, unfortunately, this peace cannot last.  Poetry against despair, Wiman argues, engenders faith that is “both provisional and perishable”—and contrary to the desire for certainty: “The need for certainties, for ‘belief,’ is a symptom of intellectual adolescence, and it can afflict a culture as well as an individual consciousness.”  The function of faith, ultimately, is to free a person from “the compulsion to believe that there is one truth,” from the need to “figure it all out.”

The remedy to the desire for certainty is acceptance of contradiction: “…the burn of being I feel in my bones, which makes life seem so joyful, and the burn of unbeing that rages right alongside, which makes that joy so tragic, seem, ultimately, one thing.”

Comfort with the coexistence of countervailing truths allows Wiman to “have never felt quite at home in this world, and never wanted a home altogether beyond it.”  Without necessarily referencing excrescence, Wiman wants us to see that the mature poet recognizes life is shit, as confessional poetry often portrays it, but life is dear as well, worth being lived despite the billowing discontent that characterizes the human condition at the beginning of the third millennium.

About the reviewer: Mike Panasitti is a published poet and exhibiting artist from the Orange County area, whose achievements also include publishing fiction and creative non-fiction on the Reedsy writer’s platform.