Monday, November 30, 2009

Ailbhe Darcy, review: Zawacki's "Petals of Zero"

Ailbhe Darcy

Review of:

Petals of Zero / Petals of One
by Andrew Zawacki
Talisman House, 2009
ISBN: 9781584980643

In a 2000 essay on Barbara Guest, Robert Kaufman described the two modes of resignation supposed available to poets since Baudelaire:

“[T]he poet can blithely sing away, as if capitalist modernity had never happened, had not profoundly affected the experiential preconditions for intellectual and emotional processing of lyric and its contents; or, in awareness of how drastically modernity has altered the conditions for aesthetic experience, the poet – not wishing to participate in false comforts and illusory consolations – can just throw in the towel on song-based poetics.”

Recently, the fiction writer Junot Diaz visited our university and spoke to would-be writers about his career to date; one of the things he said he’d learnt from life went something like this: “If someone offers you a choice between two things, what they’re really asking you is: do you want to be f*cked this way or do you want to be f*cked that way?” And, Kaufman argues, Guest has chosen not to be f*cked at all:

“A third, admittedly paradoxical and ever-tentative alternative is the one Benjamin and Adorno try to chart in Baudelaire and the tradition of formal experiment associated with him. Here the poet begins with something like an attempt to sing, but does so haltingly fragmentarily, or with confessions of paralytic bad faith, and so forth; yet the poet also or thereby seeks to reconjure beauty while simultaneously representing the unprecedented complexity – in all too many cases, the out-and-out horror – of really existing society. The poet begins with an attempt to sing song’s impossibility.” (5)

As the title of Andrew Zawacki’s latest volume suggests, it is concerned with just such apparent binaries, and with choosing, instead, not to be f*cked at all, or to “sing song’s impossibility.”

Zawacki’s long poem ‘Arrow’s Shadow’, one of three in Petals of Zero / Petals of One, is literally pushed to the margins by song’s impossibility. It inhabits that side of the page where the lyric rarely ventures, its words repeatedly split in two by the force of the push. ‘Arrow’s Shadow’ itself suggests various explanations for its place on the peripheries. It is a “palimpsest”, perhaps, of another poem. It is “letting the limit appear” (33). Or it is the work of “the empress and the outcast” (34) –

“what ciph-
ered graf-
fiti they aero-
sol the walls with

the ana-
gram and gram
-mar of mar-
gins and mar-

- that repeated “mar” harping on wilful damage, the poem as vandalism. Or, again, this is a hymn to marginalia,

“…the least, the last thing said
as prefix
as praise
as variorum and opus

And yet, ‘Arrow’s Shadow’ inhabits a central position in this volume. “[P]eriph-/eries”, as the poem reminds us, “are the centers of other things.”

‘Arrow’s Shadow’ begins, like any poem, with the blank page. But it immediately insists on the fragility of that silence – “brittlewhite” – and shatters it: “a palimpsest of shatters / letting the limit appear”. What fills the white then is kaleidoscopic: stripes of colour that insist upon colour’s particularity – “eau de nil” replaced by “rose”, “china blue” replaced by “canary yellow” – and studded with many-coloured precious and semi-precious
stones: “agate”, “tourmaline”, “chalcedony”, demantoid”. Portmanteau words – well-used, rare, or newly-coined – add to the sense of something intricately worked and jewelled: “bowstrung”, “silkscreen”, “gauntwater”, “alpenglow”, “japanimated.”

In other ways self-consciously cinematic, ‘Arrow’s Shadow’ moves, after blankness, into a scene in a palm house, a storm breaking out. It’s a scene preoccupied with fanning-out shapes, caught on “cardioid mic”, a kind of unidirectional microphone named for its heart-shaped sensitivity pattern. Chandeliers are “of folding fan”; vaults “trefoil”; fronds “pinnate”. This opening scene is a “zerologue” – presumably, a speech act without voice -- and it’s only in the next scene, by a “formica lake”, that a voice seems to enter at all. Then it’s only “sotto voce”, in parentheses.

Apart from that wall-scrawling “outcast” mentioned above, the marginalised seem hardly present in ‘Arrow’s Shadow’ at all, except perhaps in that parenthetical voice. However, Zawacki’s “shekel dropped among the asphodel” recalls, inevitably for this Irish reader, the epigraph to Derek Mahon’s masterpiece, ‘A Disused Shed Outside County Wexford’. Mahon’s epigraph – “Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels” – is in turn from George Seferi’s 1935 sequence Mythistorema. The “shekel” Zawacki adds has a double valence: it evokes the Jewish people, modern Israel, all of bloody, specific history. But it is also a generic word for currency, and currency is itself all about the generic – about flattening and standardising and, perhaps, forgetting what’s specific. Seferi’s poem, built from Odyssean materials, is – like Mahon’s, and like, I submit, Zawacki’s – about memory and forgetting, set in ruins. If Seferi’s poem asks, “who will calculate for us the cost of our decision to forget?” Mahon’s poem accuses the poet:

“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

In this context, the conclusion of Zawacki’s poem provides a horrifying and terrifically honest response. But, since it has all the power of the twist in a great movie, I won’t give it away.

It is doubly interesting to compare Mahon’s poem with Zawacki’s volume because, just as ‘A Disused Shed’ is invested with a double vision that invests a local setting with global horror, the ‘Georgia’ Zawacki addresses in his first poem moves between one Georgia and another in a way that allows vision to accumulate something like an object dipped repeatedly in wax. The word “Georgia” becomes, like the word “arrow” in ‘Arrow’s Shadow’ a cleverly shifting signifier. But Georgia, for all that, never loses its primary signifieds: the Southern state where we know the poet resides, and the country where a tense history recently played itself out bloodily on our television screens. ‘Georgia’, a long insomniac’s lament, is less of a departure from the physical world than is ‘Arrow’s Shadow’: we can imagine the speaker emerging restlessly from his house to address his disconnected thoughts to the night, and the place, that surrounds him: “I don’t sleep Georgia”. But it gradually becomes less clear whether Georgia is being addressed, or described. “[I]ts sugar Georgia” seems to clarify for the reader that it’s Georgia State we’re talking about here, but lines later “a lake effect Georgia” is surely the country Georgia. On the next page, “aurora borealis Georgia” could be either Georgia, but rarely; and what about “hence I wed Georgia” – a woman’s name?

These roaming thoughts range between thoughtful and fretful, fearful and maudlin – “assassin crouched at the front of the house assassin waiting in back” is followed shortly by “I buried a friend far away Georgia…I’m tired of talking about it”. Winner of the 1913 prize, ‘Georgia’ ends with a change in tone, a note of resolve: “I won’t sleep Georgia / I’ll wait up.”

The final poem in Petals of Zero / Petals of One can only be described as well-hinged. It is articulated sections like an insect, taking breaths only to begin again, and punctuated only by colons in a way reminiscent of A.R. Ammons’ Sphere. Susan Howe has described Zawacki as combining “the disciplined perception of a naturalist with the inspired perception of a poet,” and his back-cover blurb on Petals of Zero / Petals of One claims him for ecopoetics. Whether or not “ecopoetics” becomes, in this reading, a fashionable term for any poetry that engages with the world, the third poem of this volume, at least, does concern itself patently with the ‘natural’ world. There is an insistence on the existence of this world independent of the writer, and of us: the “…sun plays / satisfied with itself”, recalling the TV in an empty room of Michael Symmons Roberts’ ‘The World’s Pelt’. Importantly, the writer/speaker does not “know who / do not know why the wasp / the pebble purslane & / clotbur…” Human concepts are inadequate: they are “singular” things “that only happen / plural.”

Oddly, though, as the poem goes on, moments of anthromorphism – of nature understood through human categories – grow more frequent, not less so. A snowflake is “anorexic”, “epilepsies / of sunlight marry the floor”, a mirror refuses to shatter. And the poem ends with such an anthromorphism:

white flame in a white
fog in a windflower coming
to meet us”

This is an odd kind of ecopoetics, if it is one that collapses back into the human-centred understandings that have always dogged us. It’s hard to make sense of it: does the poem end in resignation, or a compromise? The latter seems possible, and perhaps a way of choosing not be f*cked at all, of giving the slip to both the consolation of the traditional lyric and the temptation to throw in the towel altogether, for immediately before that ending we are told:

“a winter
garden to keep the winter out
but not out of sight:
recycling what murmurs
volt after volt
it’s okay”


[1] Kaufman, Robert. (2000) “A Future for Modernism: Barbara Guest’s Recent Poetry”, American Poetry Review 29.4, July/August: 11-16.

Ailbhe Darcy is from Dublin, Ireland. She is a student on the PhD and MFA programs in English and creative writing at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. She writes critically on poetry for Dublin’s Stinging Fly, and has published her own poetry in Britain, Ireland and the US.

RECONFIGURATIONS: A Journal for Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture,
http://reconfigurations.blogspot.com/, ISSN: 1938-3592, Volume Three (2009): Immanence/ Imminence

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