I remember where I was when I first read Christian Wiman. I was an associate at a law firm in San Francisco, in my late 20s, depressed, unhappy with my job and where my life was going.
Perhaps in some kind of reaction, I was reading from Christian mystics at the time. In texts from the contemplative church tradition, I was learning that God is not only a proposition to affirm—an abstract statement of belief—but something more immediate. Dogma, as Wiman wrote for Image, could act as “the ropes, clips, and toe-spikes whereby one descends into the abyss.”
Wiman was editor of Poetry Magazine for a decade, and his 2008 essay for the American Scholar revealed his recent arrival at faith. He had fallen in love, acknowledged a “faith that had long been latent” in him, then received a diagnosis of an incurable cancer of the blood—in that order. It was beautiful and spoke to something I had experienced but never discussed: it gave language to a season of absence. And this, in turn, consoled me.
On the page, Wiman’s work can be stormy, while at times breaking into flashes of surprising peace. Nowhere is this in greater effect than in his newly released book, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, which looks unflinchingly at life, love, and Wiman’s 18-year journey with cancer.
As Wiman notes in the introduction, “To write a book against despair implies an intimate acquaintance with the condition. Otherwise, what would be the point?” The result is a dizzying book—at alternate points turbulent, psalm-like, revelatory—and altogether strangely uplifting. It is like nothing else I have read.
I wanted to check in with Wiman, ten years after we first spoke in an interview for CT, to learn more about his new book. Our interview was conducted by phone and over email.
There is some serious Jacob-like wrestling in this book. What were you aiming to do?
I was trying to win! (There’s some serious Jacob-like wrestling in me.) Alas, no, but my mind does bear the mark of the struggle.
Ten years ago I wrote a book, My Bright Abyss, which was an attempt to see the landscape of faith I had come to inhabit. I completed it while undergoing a bone marrow transplant, and it bears the scald of that experience. This new book is no less intense, but its pressures are different and its gaze is broader.
In her great poem “Toward the Solstice,” Adrienne Rich writes, “I am trying to hold in one steady glance / all the parts of my life.” That’s what I was trying to do—hold it all together, and that required many different formal strategies.
You received a cancer diagnosis 18 years ago. How is your health now?
My health is excellent, but if you had asked this question a few months ago, I would have had a very different answer. I spent much of 2022 and 2023 in bed and would be dead now, had a spot in a clinical trial in Boston not become available. For months it was dicey, and then proved successful.
This was my 11th major treatment over the years. (“Minor” treatments are for managing symptoms and have been endless.) Cancer has so completely defined my life for two decades that I find it difficult to imagine life without it. It’s possible—by no means certain, but possible—that this new treatment might force that happy challenge upon me.
Extreme illness is hell, but it does strip away the inessentials and make certain intimacies and insights possible, both with people and with God. I spent five weeks in Boston, and while there, two old friends came (at different times) to be with me. One is a Jewish Buddhist poet with whom I have had an ongoing conversation about God for 35 years. The other is a Lebanese/Irish novelist who has a finely developed sense of and respect for the mystery of existence but an antipathy for organized religion.
What surprised me—and has stayed with me—during our time together was how close Christ seemed to be to us, how I could feel him in the care and love they showed for me. I’m not saying either is an “anonymous Christian,” to use Karl Rahner’s unfortunate term. That would be condescending and disrespectful to both. What I am saying, though, is that Christ precedes and exceeds Christianity, and that belief in him is not a precondition for his love.
In your book, you write: “One grows so tired, in American public life, 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.” With respect to public life—or the constant temptation to form a public version of our self—how do you think we move forward?
“We” don’t. Those words come from an essay about the African American poet Lucille Clifton, who wrote poems so short and understated they don’t even have a capitalized “I.” I see her as a tonic to that toxic sludge. Make no mistake, she risks large statements in her poems and speaks to the culture as a whole, but she does so out of that small “i” that has been slowly forged and chastened within one life.
All one can do is try to keep one’s own soul clear. I have found poetry a great aid to this, but someone else might need carpentry. The essential element is attention, which that sludge aims to eradicate.
In an early chapter of your book, you quote George Herbert, who writes: “I will complain, yet praise / I will bewail, approve: / And all my sour-sweet days / I will lament, and love.” Why is lament important?
You could have reframed the question to ask, Why is praise important? Herbert is careful to insist on both. Christianity is predicated on a dual movement: the cross and the resurrection.
The cross we know. Each of us will lose whatever it is we most love; the course of human life is inescapably tragic. The resurrection we imagine. We may be given—through love, moments of grace in nature or with others, and an experience of transcendent art—attestations of it in this mortal life, but the thing itself is unutterably beyond. (For us, I mean. I believe Jesus’ resurrection happened.)
This dimension of faith, in literary terms, is comic (which of course does not mean “comical”). Despite so much evidence to the contrary, Christians live toward a happy ending.
I tend to feel the tragedy of life more than its comedy and must constantly check and correct this inclination. I know plenty of people oppositely disposed—who need to season their days with vinegar rather than sugar. Herbert’s point is that both dispositions are essential.
How do you think about your vocation as a writer?
There are vocations you’re born for, and there are vocations you earn. The former includes those things that are raveled up with one’s soul; you can’t imagine your life without them. To be sure, they require great labor, but there is always that initial element of givenness to propel you. The latter presents some stiff resistance.
I think of poetry as my primary vocation. It’s impossible for me to imagine my life without it. Editing and teaching are both vocations I’ve struggled to have. Neither was natural to me at first—in fact, I hated them—but both became essential elements of my life. I’ve had to work for that. (Faith, by the way, is a vocation that’s both given and earned.)
In an entry about the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, you discuss the way doubt can sometimes become convenient or even spare us from the immediacy of God. How do we know when we’re caught in doubt like that?
The cries of Job and Jesus’ lament on the cross both teach us that God’s absence is an inevitable aspect of faith. That both occur at moments of absolute destitution makes that absence all the more painful.
I don’t know how useful the word doubt is for me anymore. I don’t spend much time wondering whether God exists. I know he is, just as I know I love my wife, and as I know when a true poem is demanding I bring it into being.
But it is quite possible, is perhaps even the norm, to believe in God but to lack faith. To lose awareness of his presence, to stop believing in that. To live only at the level of the ego and to allow despair.
I loved the C. S. Lewis passage you cite from The Great Divorce about shame—that if we “drink the cup to the bottom” we’ll find it nourishing, but if we “try to do anything else with it … it scalds.” What do you understand Lewis to mean, and what happens when we look clearly at our shame?
In that passage, a ghost in Hell (or purgatory) is being enjoined to make her way to the mountains (Heaven) where she will become solid and “real.” At present she is, like all newly arriving ghosts, transparent. She refuses, because the thought of everyone seeing right into her, even through her, is appalling. All her life she has protected something of which she is ashamed, and even in death she can’t let it go.
Lewis’s point is that most of us have such shames. Maybe we don’t really believe the things we pretend to. Maybe we don’t really feel the love we pretend to. Maybe we are caught in lives that ought not to be ours. What happens if we don’t fully face our shames?
In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens to find himself transformed into an enormous cockroach. He has become his shame, which was, ironically, the shame of being human.
Your book felt psalm-like in the way it alternates between hope and despair. What effect would you want it to have?
All I have ever wanted for my work was for it to live in a few readers’ minds in the way that the work of certain writers has lived in mine. That’s not to say I haven’t aimed at greatness. I have. One shouldn’t be embarrassed about that, even though the sense of having fallen short is inevitable and painful.
But there are writers who have helped me live, whose work I return to for both provocation and consolation. Not all of them are “great” writers in the world’s eyes, and some only managed a flash or two of brilliance in a lifetime of labor. But I cherish their examples and wouldn’t recognize my life without the specific lenses they have given me. I want that spiritual kinship with a few desperate readers.
As for the book’s emotional vertigo, that’s simply life—or at least the life I’ve been given. But literature is not merely a mirror of reality. I hope the book makes some sense of the vertigo. I like Kenneth Burke’s ambitious phrase for the most ambitious literature: “equipment for living.”
Did the book make you think about despair in new ways?
Oh, yes. Thinking universally about despair like this forced me into all sorts of little “sloughs of despond” I usually unconsciously skirt. It also forced me to distinguish between willed and unwilled despair. “Try to remember this: what you project / Is what you will perceive; what you perceive / With and passion, be it love or terror, / May take on whims and powers of its own.” That’s Richard Wilbur, and it goes to the heart of how much misery we bring on ourselves.
On the other hand, there are genuine afflictions, which must be named and faced. Though in some instances, they are invulnerable to all but one thing: grace.
I worry this makes the book sound glum. It is, however, as the title indicates, a salvo against despair, and one of the best weapons is humor. I hope a good deal of that comes through.
You cite Alexander Schmemann, who says, “the knowledge of the fallen world does not kill joy, which emanates in the world, always, constantly, as a bright sorrow.” The book ends with a meditation on the Cross. What does the Cross mean to you?
This embarrasses me—but why?—but I teared up (in the parking lot of my gym) when I first read this question. Simone Weil once said that Christianity would be sufficient if it ended with the Cross—that God would so love humans that he would become one, that he would die for and with us, the sacralizing of matter by the Incarnation—that this was miracle enough.
I can’t agree. Resurrection is the final fruition of that miracle. But I know what she meant. This life is hard. I am a Christian because I believe it looks unflinchingly at—and redeems—that fact.
Josh Jeter is a lawyer based in Austin.