Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair

  • By Christian Wiman
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 320 pp.

Meditations on faith, family, and life offer more hits than misses.

Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair

If there’s one thing Christian Wiman, author of Zero at the Bone, wants you to know, it’s that he hasn’t figured most things out yet — but he’s trying. As a person prone to overthinking everything myself, I appreciated his thoughts on despair, which range from hopeful to bleak and which often contain a sense of awed questioning.

Wiman’s book is a meandering blend of poetry, memoir, and passages from other works. Most of the time, this blend is effective, although the reader may occasionally wonder what to make of an entry composed entirely of others’ words. (Also, the practice of mentioning its author only at a poem’s end means readers won’t always know whose words they’re encountering at a given moment.)

Wiman’s courageous attempt to confront difficult topics, however, more than makes up for any confusion brought on by the format he uses, such as in “Can This Sin Live,” where he reflects:

“To be conscious is to be conscious of suffering. Our own pain wakes us to the pain of others…We may become more conscious, but consciousness itself becomes a cage…We are our wounds, it seems, and without them will not exist.”

The author is admirable in his ability to identify universal truths — consciousness often leads to the awareness of consciousness (and thus suffering) in others — and then to distill them into more complex observations: Despite this newfound awareness, consciousness itself can constrain us in new and uncomfortable ways.

Elsewhere, Wiman demonstrates his knack for finding humor among the ordinary. In “No Epiphanies, Please,” he reminisces:

“It used to be that artists were allergic to exercise and relieved themselves with absence and orgies. Now there are spin classes…A good gym, like a good bar, fuses two things: oblivion and anonymity…The stack of towels should be so crisp and white they expunge all thought of other users. One should be able to run on a treadmill until one’s mind is entirely erased.”

These lines so perfectly evoked my years of going to sterile, impersonal gyms that I found myself reminiscing about them despite having no desire to return to one.

In other, more personal entries, Wiman reflects candidly on how his family, specifically his daughters, have affected the way he sees the world:

“It is late morning and I have been sitting despairing over what a life in poetry amounts to and little three-year-old Greta has just come from next door bearing a book…She is curly-haired, her whole being golden, alert as a bird…We are here, we are here. Set this down, too, as much as if an atrocity had happened and been seen. The earth is beautiful beyond change.”

Wiman also examines his relationship with religion, which has been both complicated and strengthened by his cancer diagnosis and other heartbreaking personal events. “Until someone you truly love slips out of this world forever, the pain and promise of Christ remain abstract,” he opines in one entry. “That’s all right, so long as you let Christ’s reality — which is to say, simply, reality — work against that abstraction in your heart.”

This rumination feels distractingly vague: Is Wiman suggesting that nobody who hasn’t experienced the loss of a loved one can accept the full “pain and promise of Christ”? If Jesus’ reality is indistinguishable from “objective” reality, how does suffering a loss alter the equation?

Nevertheless, Wiman’s meditations offer plenty of food for thought, leaving the reader eager for more ponderings — and even more poetry.  

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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