This review is 1,657 words
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There is a richness in what is possible in American poetry today where a single movement is un-locatable among the clamoring groups proclaiming their affiliation with new formalism, revitalized narrative, postmodernist or post-post modernist works, LANGUAGE or post-LANGUAGE, lyric-language, post-beat, next New York generation or groups after-this-or-that poet, as in, in the vein of Ashbery, in the vein of Stevens, in the vein of Zukofsky, etc. etc. Among this gluttony of poetries, exciting young writers are learning to read widely and enrich their work with the poetic gestures and modes of expression from each and every one of these groups and their strings of tradition. Among them we find Andrew Zawacki, who is just over thirty years old, with Anabranch his second collection following by reason of breakings (University of Georgia Press, 2002). Like the tightly-wrought, dense poems of his first book, Anabranch is a forceful, mature collection. The poems stem in many ways from a deep reading of Eastern European poets (Zawacki edited Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 [White Pines Press, 1999]) and English and American modernist-like tradition in its propensity to make use of declarative modes. Yet it also undermines these modes and takes more linguistic and stylistic risks with punctuation (i.e. beginning lines with colons), with column use or by using gaps between words like ‘intentioned anonymous’ (30) ‘scissor vagabond’ (29) along the lines of objectivist poets like Oppen, or, as he is using elliptical constructions, along the lines of contemporary authors like Cole Swensen, Myung Mi Kim or Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.
The poems in Anabranch, as in Zawacki’s first book, are also varied in form. Some move slightly off the left hand margin, as in ‘Credo’, some are in couplets (generally unrhymed), tercets, or occasional single-line variations, and the final section of the book is in prose poem blocks. In this way, Zawacki avoids what could be a bland hypotactic movement in his poems and keeps the language dynamic by using line-length variances, elliptic phrasings, non-sequiturs, and line-breaks which imply multiple readings, as here:
Ask me why I lost the way
I was (30)
Someone shields a match against the rain
as if to say
Zawacki’s language is consistently on the move, taking us in unexpected directions, as the book’s title indicates. For Anabranch means the part of a river or stream which branches off and sometimes—but not always—rejoins the current further downstream. Thus the book begins with a two-page long intro proem, ‘Credo’, wavering off of the left margin like a river. This is followed by three long sections (‘Viatica’, ‘Albedo’ and ‘Masquerade’), each one-poem long in numbered sub-parts (13 and 13 then 26—number of letters in the alphabet—totaling 52 parts like Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ or a card deck) and each which thematically wavers away and towards a set of returning questions or premises—the position/existence of the self or I, love, departure and a sort of rejoining of “the possible”.
Each section also has its own tone. ‘Credo’ sets up the book and is a move to explain, is a direct address poem defining (and wavering) about “beliefs”. ‘Viatica’, as its vertiginous end would imply, is vertigo embodied—the self splitting off into a thousand possible existences and adventures, as Zawacki writes: ‘I’m one and more than one’ (24). In ‘Viatica’, the narrative I is/becomes, explores ‘the living, the blind, the not yet/ and no longer… pointing there—’ (24-25) wherever that may be (it is left for the reader to or not to see the space/place/passage indicated). In the winter/fire third section, ‘Albedo’, the elliptic I is a more defined self in a world which, like the language here, splinters to find itself converging/merging with the outer/lived universe (and a lover) just like a window is married to and divides the inside and outside it touches. As Zawacki writes ‘By I / I mean a window… I mean so many windows… ’ (33) ‘Albedo’ desperately struggles to hold a singular I intact (‘hold me together I’m / cracking’ (39)) against the movement of the language, and a love interest peopling the narrative. Finally, the longest and densest part, ‘Masquerade’, is both return (rebirth) and departure: ‘a misaligned echo’(55). In this last section “I” gives way to “we”—personal (a couple) as well as universal (all of us) where, as Zawacki writes: ‘standing between two modes of indifference and flight, we held the kitchen door ajar, in case of whatever else might need to depart… ’(49)
Overall, there is a seeking to name, to join up with a stream of language and external (and internal) existence in Anabranch which, as ‘Credo’ implies, may be impossible to know or locate; is constantly elusive; as Zawacki writes:
in the violence of not knowing.
I’ve seen a river lose its course
& join itself again,
watched it court
a stream & coax the stream
into its current,
& I have seen
rivers, not unlike
you, that failed to find
their way back. (1)
As the above lines demonstrate, Zawacki’s language is often musically spellbinding and filled with potential interpretations. This can, at times, leave one wondering whether there is any solid substance (a place to go/return to, a knowing, a being) behind their allure, despite the lines being fun and jig-like, as in the seven-dwarfs reminiscent lines ‘jig we whistle o no (o no)/ (jig we whistle o no)’ (8), sometimes prayer-like ‘take these hands and the sever/ they harbor for they will not break/ or deliver us from’ (20) or sometimes appealingly vertiginous, as in this anaphora use in ‘Viatica’:
one of me stuttered and one
of me broke, and one of me tried
to fasten a line to one of
me untying it from me:
one of me watched a fisherman haul
a sand shark from the breaker,
while another was already years later … (18)
In fact, in addition to his being widely read in poetry, Zawacki’s work takes its influences from a lot of theory (Blanchot) and philosophy/ history (Heidegger & Heraclitus, for example) which can leave it feeling heady and disconnected from the earth. Yet it remains tonally rooted in reminiscences of poetry classics like Donne, Whitman, or of Eastern European poets like Zbigniew Herbert, Aleš Debeljak or Czeslaw Milosz, which gives it a grounding in a terrestrial, natural world and a sense of urgency and necessity.
Moreover, Zawacki’s rich education (he completed his PhD at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought) and poetic sensibility leads him to intermingle linguistic terminology with images from the natural/human world—basking in this paradox of being of the earth/reality or apart from it in language/thought. Indeed, his language frequently takes on a physical (active agent) force, and is (or is almost) personified—such as in: ‘A language that leans on the dark’(5) ‘A language that limped’(11) ‘pulled apart the voice he couldn’t see’(13) and ‘put your hand through lexicons of solitude’(29). These phrases are at times reminiscent of lines in Michael Palmer’s poetry, especially of those in Palmer’s trilogy collection Codes Appearing, (New Directions Press).
Furthermore, and distinctly his own, often the natural world in Zawacki’s poems becomes written, as in ‘anapest flowers’(17) ‘the beach dissolves to agar and ink’(24), stormclouds ‘were the margins we swore we’d not tamper with’(49) and ice skaters leave behind ‘scrolls their blades had whittled’(50). It also becomes lingual: ‘leaves were being swayed if not persuaded.’(50) Sometimes even the outside world and the inner body become one and the same: ‘the bended light a fractured pulse’(33). The tangible object-landscape of Earth, of the senses, becomes mired and melded with the elaborate strings of linguistics, language-formation, punctuation and thus also thought.
Beyond peculiar mixings of an often physical world with language, there are also particularly exciting and odd uses of color which are, contrary to the inversion with nature, this time very physical or active (able to have an action, be an active agent, be verb not adjective), such as ‘encrypted blue’(7) ‘encoded in apricot’(7) ‘obsidian arouse’(47) ‘keelhauled anonymous noir’(67) ‘pour the red approximate’(8) ‘evening plied a mandarin motif’(63) ‘o sorrow of cobalt o sainfoin’(11) ‘the eye azured by estrange’(58) or the ocean’s ‘curt and violet pledge’(24). Even when using color as descriptive, Zawacki’s grasp of a vast vocabulary lead to stunning choices, as in ‘a verdelho sky’(23), ‘hand-me-down revolver blue’(54) or ‘The swimming hole ambered by alkaline dusk’(61). In these fragments, Zawacki’s poems feel aesthetically and ethereally beyond the terrestrial, taking it into the land of language, or language into the land of the terrestrial so both dissolve and become phantasmagoric visitations, as this fragment from ‘Masquerade’ implies: ‘… the violins resuscitating what mimes had trouble staging in the square: that we had not existed, nor would we ever again.’(p52). This may make a reader long for a clearer vision, or it may—as they thumb through the book or read it as a dreamlike experience from A to Z—leave readers the space necessary to question for themselves, of themselves, to fill in the narrative gaps, to dwell in this “violence” of unknowing.:
This articulation of shadow to fence, of bridge to the parklands it parsed…
enlisted itself inside questions without any curve. Yet to follow them was
our valence, and in that abandon sheltered a reason for why, though unbeknownst
to each other, and unknown even to those we kept calling our selves. (45)
Thus we call to these poems, and they to us, as a possible realm we need, a companion, a place of connection where the tangible that surrounds us acts upon us, and where our actions alter the world of things, objects and beings around us. Yet the paradox, ever-present in this work, is that we often feel this connection, this world is somehow beyond our reaching. We are, just as the book states at the end, ‘awaiting another for whom we do not wait:’
Jennifer K. Dick
Jennifer K. Dick is the author of Fluorescence (U of Georgia Press, Contemporary Poetry Series, 2004) & ‘Retina/Rétine’ (Estepa Editions, Paris, 2005). She lives in Paris where she is a doctoral candidate at Paris III & teaches for ENSAE & Oxbridge Summer Programs. Jennifer co-curates the multi-lingual Ivy Writers’ Series with Michelle Noteboom, conducts interviews of other poets, & sends out monthly Paris literary mailings from email@example.com. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Diagram.com issue 6.2, The Colorado Review, Mipoesias.com, American Letters & Commentary, Cutbank #65, Gargoyle, Diner, & 12 x 12 anthology. She guest edited a selection of French translations with interviews for www.chicagopostmodernpoetry.com.
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