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I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a book of poetry—so caught up by the poet speaking about life, time, trouble, delight et al., that I raced along, scarcely aware that I was reading at all. Bill Zavatsky has long been a distinguished poet, translator, editor and publisher (the fine SUN series of magazines and books circa the 1970s), but this book must be reckoned a quantum leap. Here are the first lines of “Bald”:
In the mirror it’s plain to see:
soon I’ll be bald, like the two faceless men
staring at each other in the word SOON.
Left profile crowding mirror, I can still pretend
it isn’t happening—enough tangled skeins
of hair hide the gleam. But from the right,
where the wave lifts, I don’t have to push my face
close to see it winking at me—
the mysterious island of my skull,
the dinky coastline of my baby head
swimming back to me at last…
A seasoned, self-aware New Yorker, as much the foil of time’s winged chariot and all accompanying baggage as any of us, Zavatsky is wonderful-sorrowful company. I’m reminded of the Ginsberg of “Aunt Rose” and the Corso of “Marriage,” the diction so natural, swinging, and yet alert to any and all nuances. The difference is that “Aunt Rose” and “Marriage” are poems of youth, while Zavatsky has weathered the passage of several intervening decades with their light and dark surprises.
Then too, such poetry is informed by the work of Zavatsky’s predecessors and contemporaries in the New York School, notably Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, all of whom, different as they are, keep an easy, approachable tone, a demotic pitch in their best work, which helped to make the 1960s so rich a time for poetry. Whatever happened? Nothing, Zavatsky answers, all present and accounted for. Remembering a jazz musician of his youth in “For Steve Royal,” he writes:
At thirty-two, in a clipping my mother sent,
you stared from the Bridgeport Post, suddenly dead.
What was to blame—heart, home, job, the popular taste?
By then I’d split to the Apple to go to school. I
turned my back on the one-night stand, the pureness
of going nowhere. I was no fool, I’m still alive.
I sit at the keyboard and play whenever I want.
In the music we loved, I know I will never be great.
I beat my fingernails flat on broken pianos
from fifteen to twenty-five. Finally I couldn’t cut
those changes, soured on the drunks and silly ladies
requesting “Anniversary Waltz” that you’d perform
so graciously, stopping to flash the band your weirdo eyebrow
as you mopped the dance floor with waves of Lombardo vibrato.
Ironically, the parallel with jazz is poetry itself these days. The received wisdom that the consonant-clotted, or rustically (listlessly) ruminative, or endlessly (listlessly) surprising, is the authentic poetry of our time seems silly to anyone who grew up with The New American Poetry 1945–1960, Donald Allen’s benchmark anthology. In the wonderful “My Uncle at the Wake,” Zavatksy writes of a father surrogate:
… [Y]ou would sit me down
to tell me about life, what life was like.
I can see your earnest, handsome face;
black hair shining in the sunlight, hands
carving the air or doubling into fists
emphatically. You speak passionately
of what lies before me in the world, and
what I most remember of your lectures
is the knife you said the world conceals
behind its back; the stabs it waits to give.
I was so far away from understanding
anything of life, but I sensed your distress…
These are personal poems in which dark passages receive the same steady, thorough-going attention as moments of high elation. In the title poem, he writes:
… I thought that I had not been
this happy in a long time with a woman
and was ready to become even more happy,
ready to do anything that you wanted
in order to please you, to see that smile come up,
not knowing what you were soon to say to me
as we dined. And when you spoke,
I felt life fall away from me. Again I felt
that I would never be happy…
In our perennially sunny America, Citizen Number One, President George Bush, never loses sleep over perceived errors, because he makes it a point not to perceive them. The enormous popularity of a figure like Bukowski may have partly to do with the salutary balance he provides by offering some of the darker side of the palette.
Zavatsky provides a subtler, but deeper and more distinct contrast still: the mature man who knows that when you go around the block, and down the years, things happen. If you don’t get stuck along the way—as Bukowski, all bravado aside, made booze his permanent writing partner—chances are things continue to happen in many different colors, affording concomitant lessons and/or pleasures. “Responsibility,” Robert Duncan wrote, “is to maintain the ability to respond.”
Coming in out of the post-sixties cold that silenced other poets, Bill Zavatsky became a beloved English teacher at New York’s toney Trinity School, and went on practicing a craft at which he would prove to be a master. Where X Marks the Spot is cause for celebration.
Aram Saroyan’s Collected Minimal Poems will be published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2007. His play At the Beach House, starring Orson Bean, had a world premiere six-week limited engagement in the northern fall of 2005 in Los Angeles.
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