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   Jacket 33 — July 2007        link Jacket 33 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Cynthia Arrieu-King reviews
The Man Suit
by Zachary Schomburg
Black Ocean, ISBN 0-9777709-3-1

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Cynthia Arrieu-King and Jacket magazine 2007.

Meaningful dreamscapes


It would be fair to say surrealism in American poetry had a late start. Probably delayed by the Moderns. Probably, as Dana Gioia asserts, the need for a meaningful dreamscape in art was met in other ways, like animated cartoons. So it seems that in the seventies, in American poetry, Edson, Tate, Simic and even Donald Justice tried out surrealism to release verse from its fences and prose poetry from its dull labor. Simic perhaps had atavism for surrealism by virtue of being Eastern European and having grown up in the middle of a war. Edson came to it most likely as the best vehicle for his everyman scenarios. Tate endured in that vein, turning out material that felt cut quite from its own cloth. But the need for automatic writing that has been crafted to represent something with the burning intensity of childhood’s mind — as Breton defines surrealism — persists into today’s aesthetics.

Man Suit, cover

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Zachary Schomburg’s debut collection of poetry The Man Suit takes surreal and meaningful stances, a few approaching disorder and chaos. The volume layers its themes and recurring figures the way music can double back to make sure your heart grows heavy: a sweetheart named Marlene, an ominous Everyman, Carlos, parables about the woods, myths about women like hollowed out trees later balanced by myths about men like hollowed out trees, macabre and giddy reinterpretations of history. The latter include not only the poems from Schomburg’s chapbook Abraham Lincoln’s Death Scene but sophisticated, abstracted cosmologies reminiscent of Edson or Simic or Tate, well-anchored in sadness and bright with touches of disarming humor.


The poems deploy weights and counterweight pairs like the civilized and the brutal; the real and the uncanny, or an almost grotesque sweetness trying to mask loneliness. These counteractive forces allow Schomburg to write poems about ontological absurdities already gestured at in American poetry. His poems distinguish themselves with a particular kind of humor, and by underscoring the fabricated qualities of history, and the sad finality of our destruction of nature.


There is in Schomburg’s surrealism a combination of the civilized and the brutal that insists on the extinguishable quality of humanness. Like Tate, Schomburg records a twisted, neighborly hope, or, like Edson, violent, dreary complications of the everyday. Some examples like “Far From Marlene” start out with the crowd viewing the magically afflicted, in this case, a man with birds nesting in his “messed up” hair (47). Soon the poem matches delicacy like, “Birds are in it/laying eggs” with “He’s heard this shit before/and he gets in full/karate stance.” The diction of the latter quote could seem sophomorically set against the quiet of the first lines except that the poem shifts point of view (or reveals a hidden point of view). The poem ends with the “I” writing the ubiquitous Marlene a letter about the guy with birds in his hair and ends with the understatement, “I go on to tell her/about the birds/and the cake/using some pretty/good cursive.” That “pretty good” emotionally removes the angry karate guy as a phenomenon, not an easy joke. All the objects in the poem, chocolate cake, a large knife, the cursive, Marlene, feel like a meta-message about automatic communication and numbness in the face of the brutal.

Zachary Schomburg

Zachary Schomburg


This pairing of the surreal and the plain – and the askew jump in point of view – removes reality and humanity from the poem, the way the idea of motion seems sucked out of a painting by Hopper. The effect has as much “joke” in the tone as surrealist predecessors, but the joke is not in the people and objects Schomburg sets before us. A similar paralysis occurs in many poems, like “I’ve Since Folded This Poem into an Airplane” in which Marlene, it turns out, is made of snow. In “Halloween” the speaker actually makes his own emblem of false feeling, a sock puppet – a move critic Frederick Karl would ascribe a Southern feeling for its combination of the grotesque and the formal – then uses it to rein in the unruly beard on the real face of the speaker. The speaker’s personality, feelings, self-constructed happiness, the body’s needs, become a process held at an eerie remove. When aliens in “I’m Not Carlos” (28) ask the speaker “(g)ive us the man suit, Carlos,” Schomburg delivers a pleasurably spooky emphasis to haphazard, vulnerable existence.


What also feels new is Schomburg’s use of the historical in the portion of the book, “Abraham Lincoln’s Death Scene, “ (57-72) also a chapbook by Horse Less Press. André Breton said, “(Surrealism) is by definition free from any fidelity to circumstances, especially to the intoxicating circumstances of history.” Yet, the long series of poems about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination allow the frame of history to appear.


The sequence starts with about five lines that seem a straightforward account of the 16th president’s assassination. Then the “angelic face” of M., the reader might think, is the recurring figure of Marlene suddenly gone back in time. Though the poem refers to the killer Booth and his expressions (57), wild figures tear logic apart: daggers in the ceiling (57), a sexy legged accomplice and a “blood-spattered St. Bernard” (57). The borders of this reproduction diorama have fallen down and randomness proceeds to cyclone anything through its winds. The attachment to the recurring, human characters is constantly torn apart. The reader has to reassemble the juxtaposed times, realities and objects over and over – including Lincoln killing “a few audience members… before turning the revolver on himself” (62).


Freud used to argue that the surreal didn’t really come from the unconscious, that surrealism was a quite an ego-dominated and shaped surface. Many parts of the Lincoln section seem to have rustic realistic edges and in others the speaker seems to wink at the audience, “M. thinks this is entirely untrue, but I have my suspicions.” (63). The outrageousness becomes broad, scrambled, and hard to engage with as in Japanese noise music, even for long passages. Then, suddenly, it seems the unconscious (or is it the conscious mind leading the unconscious) waves a little hand toward an end: In a cogent, sad, litany of flames shaped like various objects, the reader detects how Lincoln himself becomes meaningless and ephemeral as our history’s own insistent violence continues:


“A woman-shaped flame. A whale-shaped flame. An ocean-shaped flame. The woman-shaped flame is inside the whale-shaped flame. The whale-shaped flame is inside the ocean-shaped flame...A breach-shaped flame...A Lincoln-shaped flame directly behind Lincoln. It is his soul on fire. It has already left his body...A Lincoln-shaped flame. A Lincoln-shaped flame” (69).


By the end of the sequence, Schomburg’s speaker and his M. are back at home by a fire, and American insouciance and comfort in the form of the couple once again frame and keep at arm’s length an infernal, bloody, nonsensical history – the fire. The poem adds up to a performance piece, dotted with a humor and violence that could seem irrelevant except that the ignored lessons of history seem to be the undeniably urgent message set forth.


If Schomburg insists – with a kind of airy, goofy humor’s help – that human existence is ephemeral and numbed, and that history is a monster piece of chaos subsumed by self-interest, Schomburg’s surrealism seems ultimately to remind the reader that pure nature is ending. Early in the book, the poem “What Everyone is Wearing” uses ecosystems and trees on an absurd scale to permit a scolding chaos to whip up. The potentially environmental message is drowned by a deeply subjective, at-root cynical equation of nature and human existence: “The tiny canaries cleared some space in the trees on their heads to wear small apartment complexes there. The tiny rabbits: supermarkets. The tiny elk cleared space to wear small churches on their heads and even tinier people started worshipping there” (27).


These last lines of the poem critiques our hubris in the face of all of nature, and the changeable nature of our livelihood, sustainability, etc. This vulnerability to shape-shifting makes a particularly hilarious turn in “A Band of Owls Moved into Town”. The invasion of a small town by owls is discussed in the tsk-ing manner we save for urban sprawl or darker attitudes usually masking racism, “A band of owls moved into town. They shopped for groceries and ran for office, that kind of thing.” This satire of fears, rendered as xenophobia of owls, ends with an exchange between the speaker and Julia, a “daughter of new and prosperous socialites...” (17). She agrees that she and the speaker are the only two “who...who...” That’s the end of the poem. The reader is helpless before this kind of goofy punning that also implies the inescapable likeness between all – owls and townies: find your own parallels in real life.


Sometimes the fabulous chaos of The Man Suit makes a funny, absurd, strident sound that it also critiques, but other times the poems are in such focus at the joining point of the humorously surreal and the painful, that you can’t help but want to know what this young poet’s work will become in the next decades. I would bet Schomburg’s work will be truly frightening, and I would hope that it remains a bit moral and devastating, as in another of the poems that indicate an end to nature. In “A Voice Box with Words Still in It,” the last poem of the collection, our old friend, the somewhat ironically human Carlos finds a voice box “inside the throat of a dead sheep”. If you “blow just right” into the voice box, it reveals the bucolic and wholesome secrets only a human would think a sheep contemplates: “where the best and worst grass is” and “how to blend it” (105). An unknown speaker tests Carlos’ hypothesis and the true voice of the sheep blisters in this terror-filled line:


Me: {I take a shallow breath and blow}. I am dying, so cold without wool, and afraid. (105)

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