Featured Reviews

Christian Wiman – Zero at the Bone [Feature Review]

Zero at the BonePoetic Motion in Our Despair

A Feature Review of

Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair
Christian Wiman

Hardcover: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023
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Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen

When the world wearies me, I imagine the heart—something between a red valentine and the true anatomical shape I so often see but fail to memorize.

Actually, when the world presses its burden down, heavy and tight upon my chest, I don’t have to labor hard at imagination. I feel my heart, feel it laced on every side with questions and failures, with testimonies of grieving mothers and powder stains of bombs loosed halfway across the map. 

My heart is a stranger nest than any bird ever built—and I name its anxious pangs despair. 

Christian Wiman, one of our age’s most rightly revered poets, proved his fluency with despair long before writing Zero at the Bone. But here, in 50 transmissions, he seeks to fathom despair, describe its particular place in his life, converse with his company in its maw; that is to say, with everyone. 

Late in the book, he writes of a particular sensation: gratitude at an electrical storm’s passing. Only lightning isn’t lightning and “it hasn’t passed you by.”

“Every single one of us in this room has been struck,” Wiman writes. 

The poet underlines this universality in a work that doubles as a spiritual marvel and stylistic amalgam. Each of these 50 entries varies in size and sentiment: Wiman offers his own poems and essays, penning unpredictable, touching fatherly revelations; heartrending tales of dogs who suffer silently, bearing bullets in their bodies; and absurdities we are free to admit because God houses both suffering and laughter in Godself. 

He also calls on the wisdom of others, quotations from Wallace Stevens and Louise Clifton; Emily Dickinson and Thomas Merton; favorite poets of mine such as Tomas Tranströmer and Carl Phillips; and—in several moving moments—Katie Farris who, like Wiman, knows the stomach-sick clarity of cancer. He engages their words sometimes, sometimes lets them ring like a choir of witnesses harmonizing the same tune: Despair remains, and so do you. 

Wiman approaches his theme in this fashion so he might deal in reality. 

“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,” he writes on the first page. 

Wiman never settles on a single, static definition: your despair, mine and his reside within the word. Rather, he regards despair as an object of tragic beauty; in league with St. John of the Cross, Wiman accepts the sacred power, the righteous allure even, of our soul’s dark nights, even as the dark threatens to consume us. 

He turns despair over to observe its every angle and acute marking. Once, in wonderfully contrary fashion, he expresses his weariness of the very term and the “drama” it denotes. Often despair, he writes, resembles a “dull actuality,” though alternately it may be “an electroconvulsive cold, an incandescent dark, still a pit, to be sure, and still quite annihilating.”

This intimate knowledge, this manner of seeing, liberates us to locate ourselves rightly in relationship to despair, and treat it with a more exact weight, nothing more or less than it deserves.

Ever sharp, and sounding wisdom’s echoes, Wiman thinks well about despair. But his project is not one of apologetics for or against, a sort of mental untangling; rather, he seeks the heart—to address its true condition, to sustain it with bread crumbs and swallows of wine.  

“Spiritual innocence is not beyond knowledge but inclusive of it,” he writes, “just as it is of joy and love, despair and doubt.” 

Our despair will not be sated by answers, but humbled through ongoing proximity to even more plumbless forces: language, beauty, awe. And God. God must be preeminent in our sojourning, Wiman notes, even as he expresses similar restlessness with the natures of divinity and despair. 

In despair, we wrestle something that persists. And if Wiman knows one truth about God, it’s his persistence. The poet recalls God’s unrelenting grace in his personal Psalm 23 (“he seemed everywhere dammit—and was present in my soul. Was my soul”) and the days since.

In a particularly naked passage, Wiman describes all our fumbling at piety and prayer; our spiritual fidgeting as we move forward and backward rather than being still and knowing he is God; our tendency to view spirituality from a distance like some everyday out-of-body experience. Then he underlines St. Paul’s favorite two-word construction: “But God.”

“This restlessness, this void that you can never quite fill, this tooth that will not stop nibbling at your soul—I would suggest today that this is the call of God,” Wiman writes. “… It may come as frazzling anxiety or it may come as a still small voice; but it’s warrant of authenticity is that it will not leave you alone, will not stop asking you: who are you, really?” 

Because God persists, so do we—not necessarily with conviction or even in a particularly attractive way. But our bodies, our souls, remain in motion. And motion tells us we are yet alive.

“I believe the right response to reality is to bow down, and I believe the right response to reality is to scream,” Wiman writes. “Life is tragic and faith is comic. Life is necessity and love is grace. (Reality’s conjunction is always and.) I have never felt quite at home in this world, and never wanted a home altogether beyond it.” 

God offers means toward this perpetual motion, surrounding us with the shapes of awe. And the very fulfillment of all words, the Incarnate Word, grants us language to keep describing our ravenous aches and feather-like hopes. This very motion—from the heart, north to the mind, then south to the tongue—keeps us alive and animate. 

Like others’ poetry, our self-expression may teach us “nothing, unless the surge of spiritual alertness it sends through my nerves counts as an increment of knowledge,” Wiman writes—and the entire book suggests it counts very much. 

Late in these pages, in a provocative and delightful back-and-forth with … himself, Wiman argues the spiritual and moral benefits of poetry. Its point, he admits at least for a moment, is “to keep Being strong in us. To keep us strong enough for Being.” 

Here rests the true argument of Zero at the Bone: we read and write, pray—even if barely—and love others, create and destroy and recreate, so our beings may imitate a relentless God, in motion even as despair casts its great and changing shadows.

Among the book’s final chapters, a true yet novelistic description of Wiman’s time treated in “the cancer chair.” With nowhere to be, his thoughts spool forward and back, through the routine and revelatory, toward children—who in this single and awful way are his peers—and charming nurses. Through stationary and somehow liminal experiences, he realizes “to say yes to one moment in life is to say yes to all of them.” 

If this is true, and Wiman more than makes the case, we require unceasing sustenance “to keep us strong enough for Being.” 

Sometimes, immersed in an equally sound yet more shallow form of despair, I worry my words will not outlast their impression on the page, let alone my life. God draws my mind to someone else’s line of poetry, or three or four minutes of melody on the radio, that once kept Being strong enough in me to slough despair for another hour, even another day. 

“A writer is not obligated to fight despair,” Wiman writes. And yet I imagine my sentences suspended in air, offering the same relief I’ve known to another soul for another hour, even another day. Somehow that seems lasting enough. 

Thank God, Wiman’s words transcend any seeming obligation. They offer solace enough to keep readers moving in this moment, and form a song to be found on some innate radio whenever necessary.

Aarik Danielsen

Aarik Danielsen is the arts and entertainment editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune and an instructor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column, The (Dis)content, for Fathom Magazine. His work has been published in Image Journal, Think Christian, Christ and Pop Culture and more.

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