ZERO AT THE BONE: Fifty Entries Against Despair, by Christian Wiman
“One grows so tired, in American public life,” Christian Wiman writes with sudden invigoration, “of the certitudes and platitudes, the megaphone mouths and stadium praise, influencers and effluencers and the whole tsunami of slop that comes pouring into our lives like toxic sludge.”
Amen to that!
Forget about Ozempic for a sec. Against such sludge, Wiman’s new book, “Zero at the Bone,” is like one of those fancy juice cleanses of recent yore, intellectual edition: full of salubrious and often quite tough poetry, philosophy and theology broken down into digestible bits. Issued in 50 kaleidoscopic “Entries Against Despair,” this is in part a commonplace book, though some of the voices quoted are writers not so common, like the Romanian insomniac E.M. Cioran, who celebrates “the privilege some of us have of making our organic pulsations felt.”
It’s brilliantly colored, sweet and astringent, tonic, nourishing and, if you’re unfamiliar with Wiman, perhaps just a first course.
Wiman is himself a poet who has published three previous books of mostly prose: about ambition, and religious faith clarified after his diagnosis with a rare and brutal cancer, and encounters with some of the celebrities in his field. Amanda Gorman aside, that’s probably an oxymoronic phrase, he’d surely agree, describing how poets “walk around sniffing each other like despondent dogs.”
Still, feeling a “storm of forms” most true to life, Wiman tends to blend memoir with bursts of verse, his own and others’. There are also long passages of literary analysis, comparing Wallace Stevens to William Bronk, say, that one can imagine read from notes at the lectern. A longtime editor of Poetry magazine, Wiman is now a professor at Yale Divinity School.
Much of “Zero at the Bone” is set a long way from Yale: in the hot, flat, scrubby towns of Texas where Wiman grew up, the apparent golden child of a deeply tarnished family, “my father vanishing, my mother wracked with rage and faith, my siblings sinking into drugs and alcohol, my own mind burning at night like an oil fire on water.” (He mentions only briefly an opiate addiction of his own, and spends maybe a little too much time recapping an abandoned bildungsroman in service of the theory that God is a failed novelist “who seems conflicted about how — or whether — to finish us.”)
Along with humanity’s end in the main, Wiman has been forced to confront his own end in the particular. His refusal to submit to America’s “cancer camaraderie,” instead trying to explain the “otherworldly intimacy” of its pain, reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich. “Through the rooms/the white minders come and go/with their upbeat and their bags of blood,” he writes Prufrockishly of hospital treatment.
This quicksilver allusiveness is present in his title, too, which refers to the last line of “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” the Emily Dickinson poem in which a man recalls boyhood run-ins with snakes. Wiman is fascinated with these creatures, not just because they’re key players in the Bible, nor just the dizzy-making symbolism of the ouroboros, but in a personal, visceral way. At 6 or 7, growing up in Texas, he ate rattlesnake from toothpicks at a county fair. “It tasted like chicken. Of course it did. Live long enough and even memory begins to taste like chicken. Or rattlesnake.” (OK, maybe that’s one of his more Forrest Gumpy passages.)
He includes a poem about running over a blacksnake with a steamroller at 16, describes murdering others with a backhoe, locates “an excitement akin to sexual arousal” at encountering a lethal coral specimen, details how his hot mess of a father lost half a foot after another rattler’s poisonous bite.
Wiman has grown exquisitely attuned to the animal world: “the fireflies smearing their alien radiance”; a white bird he never identified but was “the closest thing to a vision that I have ever had”; the bullet discovered in his rescue dog, Mack, and the realization that he’s been existing in a state of suffering. Everyone carries around a metaphorical bullet in them, he concludes, not so very far on the couch from Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s best-selling trauma book “What Happened to You?”
He considers how the “drugs that have prolonged my life first burned out the eyes of rats and rabbits, ate through the insides of zebra fish and wriggly-nosed little guinea pigs.”
And he could charm an atheist out of a tree, sharing in its entirety the Canadian poet Anne Carson’s “God’s Justice,” about the Divinity’s distracting project of creating a dragonfly “with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.”
“One day God loses himself designing a dragonfly,” Wiman notes dryly in his breakdown of the poem, likening it to the Book of Job. “The next day, who knows, he might have become equally involved in the design of a cancer cell.”
Along with the dark glimpses of his family of origin there are lilting, redemptive ones of his wife and young twin daughters. As other professional thinkers have discovered, small fry often have insights more searing than Spinoza’s.
For a Christian, Wiman can be delightfully venomous himself, hissing about a pretentious-sounding Chicago restaurant, “aggressively velvet, waiters with the faces of fruit bats, a kind of blood pudding of ‘privilege,’” and the board member who drunkenly calls Lucille Clifton “Louise.” He admits frustration with religion, “not simply the institutional manifestations, which even a saint could hate, but sometimes, too many times, all of it, the very meat of it, the whole goddamned shebang.”
I am quoting too copiously — perhaps the practice is contagious — from a profane, irreverent, freewheeling and necessary book. Readers of whatever creed will be jolted to lift their heads from their screens and turn them to the unfathomable heavens.
ZERO AT THE BONE: Fifty Entries Against Despair | By Christian Wiman | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 320 pp. | $30