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Daniel BurkeApril 18, 2024

A dozen years ago, Christian Wiman withdrew an essay before it could be published in a magazine. It concerned the writer’s family in West Texas, where his father and sister suffered from severe drug addictions. An “unacknowledged sin” festered between the essay’s lines.

Zero at the Boneby Christian Wiman


Farrar, Straus and Giroux
320p $27

The sin was his, Wiman confesses in his new book Zero at the Bone: 50 Entries Against Despair. Visiting his father and sister in a squalid motel “so close to the freeway you could touch the hum of the tires in the walls,” Wiman thought his kin doomed. He fled Texas, allowing his love for them to sink “into the form of despair that doesn’t simply refuse hope but actively snuffs it out.”

“Sometimes we want a despair to be ultimate because it absolves us of action. Sometimes we simply seek protection from pain that in the past has found us too exposed,” Wiman writes. In the essay, which is finally published in Zero at the Bone, he confesses in a coda: “I have finally faced this essay and the sin that lay at the center of it: a willed death of hope in the face of a fragile but furious will to live.”

His sister is now a beloved aunt to his twin daughters, and Wiman is a celebrated poet, memoirist and professor at the Yale School of Divinity. Their reconciliation began as he contemplated a question his sister asked years earlier. Wiman suffers from a rare form of blood cancer that requires painful experimental treatments. What is it like to live with death in your veins, she asked—one kind of estranged blood, asking about another.

Wiman recalls that his answer was lacking.

In Zero at the Bone, Wiman provides a more generous, though stringently unsentimental answer. This is not Chicken Soup for the Literary Soul. No tidy anecdotes or saccharine couplets. “A poem that’s reducible to a message is not a good poem,” Wiman asserts. Though an evangelist for poetry, Wiman defines good literature the way an apophatic theologian defines God, through a series of erasures and negations: “not this, not that.”

“I’m tired of all this talk of literature as moral agent, beauty cultivating empathy (please), poetry as prayer, the endless instrumentalization of art,” Wiman writes. He is also bored, for that matter, by “preachers and teachers and other professional talkers who treat poems like wisdom machines or shortcuts to a conclusion.” And he is weary as well of the “megaphone mouths and stadium praise, influencers and effluencers and the whole tsunami of slop that comes pouring into our lives like toxic sludge.”

Hosanna!” sings the soggy choir.

What Wiman offers instead is a prismatic series of 50 chapters (52, counting the mystical zeros at the beginning and end) featuring essays, poems, theological reflections, personal reminiscences and literary analyses. Some chapters read almost as liturgies—quotations that ripple around a central mystery—while others feel like lectures from Wiman’s classroom at Yale.

Though Wiman’s cancer requires continual treatment, he remains prolific in his literary endeavors. The editor of Poetry magazine from 2003 to 2015, he has written six books of poetry and four books of prose, including his widely praised 2013 memoir My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer.

Zero at the Bone most accurately reflects what he describes as his “Ninja blender of a mind.” Wiman writes:

I have published poetry, translation, criticism, theology, memoir, anthologies. They come out discreetly, but I don’t experience them that way…. 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.

Life today for many of us feels pretty stormy and desperate, not to mention fragmented and often inscrutable. In those senses, Zero at the Bone is of the moment. But Wiman is not against despair in the sense that he is “against, say, Donald Trump.” In fact, he writes, “I’m sometimes very much in favor of despair when it’s a realistic appraisal of odious circumstances—like Donald Trump.”

But the kind of despair Wiman is most interested in is existential, He focuses on the fate, as Philip Larkin writes in his poem “Aubade,” that we can neither accept nor escape: “the sure extinction that we travel to/ and shall be lost in always.” Or, to paraphrase the French mystic Simone Weil, a theological touchstone for Wiman, to be human is to be haunted by the awareness that every second brings us closer to something we will not be able to bear.

Wiman, who learned of his cancer diagnosis nearly two decades ago, is an expert in this kind of suffering. He writes, “I had—have—cancer. I have been living with it—dying with it—for so long now that it bores me, or baffles me, or drives me into the furthest crannies of literature and theology in search of something that will both speak and spare my own pain.”

The fruits of that search appear in Zero at the Bone, which has drawn comparisons to a “commonplace book,” a form with roots in the Renaissance when readers inscribed quotations into personal notebooks.Insta-quotes before the “infinite scroll.”

I have my own erratic commonplace book, a notebook that is full of Wimanisms from My Bright Abyss. Someday I will add these quotes from Zero at the Bone: “Paradise is the purity no one ever wanted.” “Faith is a grace, not an achievement.” Keen observations about how a family at a funeral is “knit together by this death,” storefronts in vacant towns “fuse failure and survival into a single aspect” and how our lives can be “sewn shut with habit.”

Wiman also includes wisdom from others, featuring poets like Emily Dickinson, Adelia Prado, Etheridge Knight and William Bronk. He is at his most convincing when plumbing the depths of poetic lines. He explains, for example, why Bronk’s poem “The World”—“the saddest poem I know”—also, somehow, brings him “major peace.”

Bronk’s poem reads, in part:

There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.

Wiman, a Christian with a mystic’s sense of God’s ultimate unknowability and a saint’s impatience with formal religion, says he has found faith to be less a source of comfort than “a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to.” Still, Bronk’s poem sends him lurching for the anchors of his life: “My wife and my work, my God. Oh no.”

So how does this “cosmically compressed elegy” inspire elation? Its power is partly technical: its sounds, form and strategic silences. But for Wiman, the deeper meaning derives from the sense of solidarity it evokes. We may not have an anchor, but at least we are in the same boat.

“Something of our deepest sadness, which is our deepest loneliness, has been faced and, precisely because it has been faced, lifted up,” Wiman writes. The load has been lifted, if notlightened. “It is, literally, deadweight. Which makes the way it’s been raised all the more miraculous.”

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