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Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair

"Here is a writer applying his personal experience, academic training, as well as his doubts and longing against despair, and finding hope." — Andrew Taylor-Troutman

Christian Wiman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 320 pages
Published December 5, 2023

“By ‘against’ in the subtitle of this book, I don’t mean to imply a ‘position,’” Christian Wiman clarifies, adding later, “Despair is too much to turn one’s attention to, so most of us turn away.” Wiman does the opposite in these pages: he pushes against despair by refusing to look away, acknowledging its complexity and avoiding tidy conclusions.

I knew this author’s style from an earlier memoir, My Bright Abyss. Wiman frequently includes quotations in his prose; Zero at the Bone has chapters comprised entirely of excerpts from other writers. As the former editor of Poetry and an anthologist, Wiman is in conversation with a vast array of authors. Thinking about how he is “against” overly simplified conclusions, his aim is to bring many voices together, not to argue but rather to consider despair from multiple angles with a healthy ambiguity and tolerance for paradox.

Religion can be critiqued as part of the effort to oversimplify problems. Wiman was raised in a fundamentalist background in rural Texas, an interpretation of Christianity that he pushes against yet seems to wrest a blessing from. The hardest reading is detailed accounts of drug use by his father and sister. Heartbreaking personal stories are laid beside Wiman’s astute commentary on poets, as well as hilariously endearing anecdotes about his young twin daughters. (One girl doubts the efficacy of prayer because, despite her plea to God, she was not turned into a unicorn.)

The phrase “zero at the bone” is from Emily Dickinson, and Wiman is one of the most lucid interpreters of the cryptic poet from Amherst. Honestly, Wiman’s own poetry in this book is challenging for me to comprehend. My reading, however, changed when, after offering an erudite reading of Gwendolyn Brooks, Wiman noted that this poet might have chosen the particular words because of how they sounded. I started to read Wiman out loud for the deliciousness of the words: “One love so lavish it is not one. / You look up, love, for a time entirely sun.” Those are words that sing.

On “thinking through” topics like despair, I often read for sermon material; once I put away the preacher’s glasses, I could more fully appreciate Zero at the Bone. Here is a writer applying his personal experience, academic training, as well as his doubts and longing against despair, and finding hope. For instance, “The Cancer Chair” does not offer answers to despair as much as model an intuitive trust in the midst of suffering.

I might even say Wiman is found by hope; he is “against” despair because “faith is a grace, not an achievement,” or a concept to simplify or explain. Listen to him again: “in my aimless way of flinging seed, / where faith is the failure love demands, / and even the wrong sloth rots upward in time.”

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