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Zero at the Bone:
Fifty Entries Against Despair

by christian wiman
farrar, straus and giroux, 320 pages, $30

The poet Christian Wiman once told me, “It is blasphemy to paraphrase a poem.” Words and sound are the material causes of poems: language, rhythm, melody. To rearrange the words, or paraphrase by using language from the poem itself, is to mar the poetic form.

While I generally dislike found poems—poems made from fragments of texts or other sources—poetic prose can be transfigured by a robust aesthetic sensibility. As a young artist, James Joyce transcribed what he called “epiphanies,” bits of colloquial phrases and daily conversations he overheard while traipsing around Dublin. He seemed to approach every interaction, as Stephen Dedalus says in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life.” Found poems thus reveal whether the finder is what T. S. Eliot calls “a mature poet,” one who is “a more finely perfected medium” through which life—or in this case, prose—can be transmuted into poetry. Excellent or well-crafted found poems stem from a capacious poetic consciousness. 

The inclination to paraphrase, by way of contrast, betrays a clipped imagination that is unable or unwilling to behold the being conveyed in and with and under a poem. To paraphrase is to do violence to the formal cause, to that which makes the poem what it is. It would be like eviscerating Hamlet for a moral or excising a movement from Sibelius’s violin concerto. When art is well-made, it cannot be paraphrased or enlarged: The form inheres in the component parts. To paraphrase destroys the integrated whole and so diminishes being.

Wiman’s new book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, is a work of art. Unlike a single poem, however, its form is difficult to discern. This is suggested by the title—a phrase from Emily Dickinson, whose experimental forms are sui generis—and by the more cryptic subtitle. What exactly is an “entry,” and in what way can it be “against” despair? Those familiar with Wiman’s career will know he has explored various forms: poetry, anthology, criticism, and memoir. Zero at the Bone combines each of his talents to produce something familiar and yet strangely new.

The book navigates familiar topoi: the relation of joy and suffering; the commerce between art and life; and the metaphysical potency of poetry. While Wiman has often written about hope and despair, Zero at the Bone makes them the structuring center around which the widening gyre of entries turn.

The entries are not chapters. Nor are they episodic. Some entries are a single poem by Wiman, others are essays of various sorts: a humorous “little feuilleton” about working out at the gym, a profound meditation on silence and suffering, a sermon Wiman delivered at Yale Divinity School. One even contains a found poem so Wimanesque, I couldn’t believe he found it. Other entries are more unwieldy, their forms, like despair, more difficult to discern. But they all play on the double-meaning of “entry” as at once a written artifact and the act of entering in—to spaces physical and metaphysical.

“I am not against despair in the way I am, say, against Donald Trump,” Wiman writes. Something else is at play. The book opens, after the dedication and epigraph, with the words, “To write a book against despair implies an intimate acquaintance with the condition. Otherwise what would be the point?” While “intimate acquaintance” is an odd phrase, almost oxymoronic, it suggests that the familiarity has not become licentious: Despair remains an acquaintance, not a lover. Despair drifts in and out of our lives, and colors the art that shapes them. The challenge is to know when to embrace it and when to hold it at arm’s length, though that makes it sound like one has a choice. Despair, like aesthetic experience, is often something we suffer. It is Lear not hiding from but howling at the storm. It is the ability to know when to say, “be it unto me according to thy word,” though the ability comes from we know not where. So the entries are like little incarnations, spaces or forms where being suffers itself to condescend, to redeem, combat, embrace, and inhabit our little despairs.

Framed by an introduction and a coda, both titled “Zero,” the fifty entries explore a variety of forms, perhaps because despair itself is protean and chimerical. While the theologians tend to speak of despair only as “the sickness unto death,” Wiman as poet recognizes that “despair, like most human qualities, can be both sinful and salvific.” He critiques the “artistic despair” that has been the dernier cri for so long it bores him: “the intelligent, disaffected, much-celebrated young novelist so adept at ironizing his own existence” has nothing to offer Wiman but “a toy despair. It is entertaining, brilliant at times, but it cannot help me.” But he champions the despair that approaches the dark night of the soul as “an annihilating but necessary prelude to a renewed awareness of God.” It is not easy, however, to differentiate despair from despair, “between articulation and cultivation, between despair as affliction and despair as sustenance.”

“Despair as sustenance” reminds me of the opening lines of Wiman’s “Music Maybe,” not included in Zero at the Bone

Too many elegies elevating sadness
to a kind of sad religion:
one wants in the end just once to befriend
one’s own loneliness,
to make of the ache of inwardness—
                               music maybe

This poem, too, is an entry against despair. It embodies its claim, becoming the music it longs for. The poem sounds so very good it makes a music that cannot be paraphrased. It must be heard for oneself. If “Music Maybe” is a well-tuned song, Zero at the Bone is philharmonic. The entries play and peal like strings, woodwinds, percussion, but they work together, enhance each other such that while individual entries ebb and flow, the book itself crescendos into syncopated antiphony.

The opening “Zero” tells us that while Wiman’s various publications “come out discretely,” they are not written that way: “When I’m working, I lurch from one thing to another, I read twenty books at a time, I flit and havoc and half drown. 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.” The structure of the book and the form of several of the more complex entries bear this out. 

Entry two opens with Wallace Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” and then blossoms into a meditation. A line from Stevens’s The Necessary Angel—“Unreal things have a reality of their own in poetry as elsewhere”—sets Wiman to thinking about how slippery the word “unreal” can be, which leads to Kandinsky on abstract art. The entry closes with Teresa of Ávila. It proceeds by an associative method, leading the reader from topic to topic, thinker to thinker, from art to life and back again, offering a view into how Wiman’s mind works and thus somehow equipping the reader to better inhabit the opening poem.

Other entries appear as commonplaces, but even here the forms do not stay still. Entry four presents passages from Karl Barth and Josef Pieper alongside a line from Doctor Zhivago and a passage from To the Lighthouse, and eighteen brings together poems and passages from Kierkegaard and Yeats, Gabriel García Márquez and George Oppen. 

Entry twenty-six, however, is not so straightforward. Divided into three sections, the first contains a poem by Miroslav Holub. The second is a stunning metaphysical meditation on language and meaning, truth and being. “There is a severe contradiction between our need to speak of ultimate things and the immunity of those things from speech,” Wiman says, revealing how the task of the poet parallels the task of the theologian. Wiman opens the third section with a reflection on the Holub poem, but then breaks into numerous subsections, demarcated not by the Roman numerals that divide other entries but by long dashes reminiscent of Dickinson. Some of these subsections develop a clear line of thought, others seem tenuous, and some contain sections of poems. The entire entry ends with Katie Farris’s “Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World,” but not before Wiman acknowledges he has ended up far from where he began “both in this odd little entry number twenty-six and in my life. Does it all hold together somehow?” It does, I think. Though I struggle to say how, in the same way I struggle to tell someone about King Lear or what it’s like to encounter Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne or how Beethoven explores a simple motif in the second movement of Symphony no. 7.

Like many of the entries, twenty-six functions as a microcosm of the whole. The component parts are discrete and yet interrelated. The closest thing I can compare it to is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, which Wiman briefly discusses in entry forty-one. In Malick’s film, the sound of rushing water or Smetana’s Moldau (a symphonic poem inspired by the eponymous river), even the sound of grass or wind in the trees, unmoors the viewer in time. Memory and longing send us backward into the past and forward toward some distant, redemptive hope. While seemingly disconnected, there is always an aural or visual cue that connects the scenes. So also with Wiman, whose modus operandi is associative. A poem or a phrase, even a word, can send an entry into unforeseeable directions and reappear in later, seemingly discreet entries. 

Those who follow Wiman will encounter new pieces and those they’ve read before: an essay from Plough, poems from the New Yorker, a moving piece of memoir from Harpers. But the book does much more than collect occasional pieces. In Zero’s arrangement, they interpret and riff upon one another, sweetening the chords.

Some of these connections are straightforward. The position of Wiman’s poems often suggests they are responses to or inspired by something from the previous entry. Other connections are structural: Allusions to Dickinson, for example, appear in every tenth entry. Still other connections are more complex and difficult to hear. They allude to other art and develop across other entries. So entry seven centers around a particular tragedy: a stillborn child. But it opens with a poem where,

Midday, midforties, little Greta greeting leaves
as they helix down to the ground around her.

The alliterative play and chiastic structure recalls Hopkins’s syntax, and “Greta” sends one to the young child Márgarét who inhabits “Spring and Fall,” “grieving / over Goldengrove unleaving.”

Another section of seven claims that “True hope goes backward as well as forward. It can transfigure a past we thought was petrified. It can give voice to certain silences or make us more fluent in silence itself. It can turn history into tragedy.” Aside from the theological claim, this statement operates as an instructive hermeneutic for how to read Wiman’s book. The entry probes the claim by attending to the suffering of another, but it is also a claim Wiman demonstrates in his own life: Entry twenty-eight sat “simmering” for twelve years in a desk drawer until hope resuscitated the past he thought was petrified, until being breathed new life into dry bones.

Poetry, Wiman's own and others’, animates every entry, and that is as it should be. For Wiman “thinks that sometimes life and language break each other open to change, that a rupture in one can be a rapture in the other, that sometimes there are, as it were, words underneath the words—even the very Word underneath the words.” And that, ultimately, is why it is blasphemy to paraphrase a poem. 

Instead of attempting to articulate the formal cause that structures the book, it may be best simply to speak of it as symphonic. Throughout Zero at the Bone, Wiman establishes motifs that are explored and expanded, revisited in lyrical poems and inverted in sections of poetical prose—they structure the whole into a polyphonic masterpiece, a philharmonia. The text that emerges exceeds, like a good poem does its words and lines, the sum of its parts. Zero at the Bone is a work of art. It is music, maybe.

Nathan M. Antiel is an editor, author, and classical educator based in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

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Image by Derek Gleeson licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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