A REVIEW OF JAN ZWICKY'S
BY AMBER MCMILLAN
The Rusty Toque | Issue 3 | Reviews | Poetry | October 12, 2012
Introducing a work with a short quotation is not an uncommon practice, and one that I like, actually, because it offers a little lens through which the work is enhanced. This is what the untitled sonnet, appearing as the first poem, does in Forge. It sets the stage, and, more, it contains the organizing principle of the entire book to come:
Take me to the place where I can climb no further.
Leave me barefoot in the snow and mapless:
I will come to you. Marry someone else, raise children:
I will sleep each night, my shoulder
to the weather-stripping of your basement door.
Join the Foreign Legion, sell the farm,
change your name and work the night shift at the HoJo:
I’ll remember. Throw it away:
I’ll find it. Throw it away and I will carry it,
dented, smudged and shining. In your greatest joy,
I will be the light before you. In your grief,
the air demanding entrance to your lungs.
Die, and I will be the fire you lie in.
I will be the fire you made because you loved.
To forge is to persevere, but it is also to make, to beat into shape, to progress steadily, to invent, and finally to fake-- that is, as an imposter, to deceive. Against the introductory sonnet, the polyminded allusion of the book title pushes for a layered reading of what it contains. The untitled sonnet is certainly about love, not only the romantic love of one person for another, but, doubly, of Zwicky’s nearly romantic love of words, of poetry, and of the infinitely despairing function of language as only an approximation of our lives and the world. Here, romantic love and even devotion, are the metaphor for what is perhaps the only tool for an almost-but-not-quite-perfect explanation of how we forge on with the only means we have—language—to connect ourselves to each other and to the world.
Zwicky supplies her way, a way, to cope with the problem of writing, of living, and of the unforgiving challenge of loving a world we have only words to describe. In doing this, Zwicky enlists a few traditional techniques, some regarded as unpopular in today’s poetic community, which seems to celebrate and encourage crossword puzzle poems stacked with twenty dollar words, and the elitism of the over-invested “now” in au courant poems referencing Twitter and “Chavril,” for example. Forge is far from this; instead it reminds us of the Romantics’ focus on sex and death as synecdoche for all of life, and of the New Critical mantra to experience poetry at the "level of the line,” not to forget that language is just signifiers signifying, and at the end of the day, we are just forging along with nothing but the dented and shining tools we have at our use.
How close can we get to meaning? To each other? To the world? To the dirt and the flower and the snow and the shoulder of your lover? Very close, but there is a limit. There is the gap between what we feel and see and know, and the expression of it. The miniscule, molecular space between your fingertip and the stone you touch, or between the word for the thing and the thing. Zwicky’s Forge contemplates these ideas with a traditional eye to “truth” and without rhetorical decoration. Her frustration is without much fuss: “Your resolve is clumsy with grief. / Every step you take is in the wrong direction.” To continually, devotedly, forge on with such an inexact measure of expression, is to continually perform imperfectly, or, to put it another way, to lie: to build metaphors, to compare, to imitate, to translate, to write. The tools of communicating are not, for Zwicky, limited to spoken or written words, but include also the sounds of wind and of rivers running, the language of music, and not least of all, the communication possible when there are no words at all, but just listening; a prescription made plain through her use of words like “silence,” “absence,” “mute,” and “still,” among others. Zwicky asks us to take the focus off of ourselves, shut our mouths for a minute, and listen to the much bigger world outside. That world is making a noise, and that voice is far more beautiful, and far cleverer than our own small utterances; it is after all, the mother voice of all voices:
There is, said Pythagoras, a sound
the planet makes: a kind of music
just outside our hearing, the proportion
and the resonance of things – not
the clang of theory or the wuthering
of human speech, not even
the bright song of sex or hunger, but
the unrung ringing that
supports them all.
And when the world speaks, it might sound like this:
At the other end of the porch, sudden commotion
in the bamboos: sharp breeze
from nowhere, the turn from fore to after noon
tousling the pages of my book some seconds later,
once the leaves fall still.
Other times, Zwicky translates music into words, as in “Night Music,” explaining, “You are only trying to say / what you see in the world,” or “Kinderszenen” in which Zwicky translates the experience of listening to music into a poem, and by doing so, demonstrates that as the notes make a song, so do the words make a poem, but, in neither case, is the experience of each, of listening or of reading, transferable, and that in this way, we are tragically alone. This grief, or the sound of grief, is a step closer in yet another language, as in “Lying Down in My Hotel Room, Thinking About the Day”:
I have spent too long
telling the world the world is the world
and poetry is made of language.
Today on the Bedford platform, I began
the great poem: weeping openly on the public
telephone – the way some were staring
as they swirled past, the way some
weren’t – yes: it was the truth
However painful any of this is, Zwicky gives some repose. Although we are alone, and although to mean is a struggle, those spaces between things are beautiful spaces that allow us to know the world “through its bits and pieces, as these come to us in language,” and sometimes if we are lucky enough to know love, that love can, for a minute or two, relieve the ache:
When you kiss me, snow is falling.
It fills the pine trees in the night.
My grief slips from me like a shawl then,
like lace. Your hands
lift the pins from my hair.
It is here, and at many other places in the book, where the conflation of music and sex and love and language simultaneously confound any attempt to make some sense out of the problem of living. By way of sex we get meaning: “Enter me and enter / me. Open me / …What moves / inside that music is / the meaning of / what is,” and later in the book we get “the music of your nakedness: that / silence.” “The river of your / listening” is also “the river of your voice,” and later, the question, “Who can name the absence / music is?”
I have largely aligned myself with the notion of reading and deeply appreciating work that, as Samuel Johnson wrote, “comes near to ourself, what we can put to use,” or similarly, as poet Jack Gilbert asserts in an interview with the Paris Review: “I think serious poems should make something happen that’s not correct or entertaining or clever. I want something that matters to my heart, and I don’t mean, ‘Linda left me.’ I don’t want that. I’m talking about being in danger—as we all are—of dying. …We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.” Forge seeks the dynamism and intricacy of relating in general, a thoughtful and sympathetic intimacy of living – a love song to the world. Like much of Zwicky’s previous work, this too is an extraordinarily focused, consistent, and clean collection. Each poem is delicately metered and carefully shaped. There are no bells and whistles, no tricks, and no corners cut; left on the page is a remarkably pruned, inspiring work.
AMBER MCMILLAN is a teacher and writer living in Toronto, Ontario. Her poems have recently appeared in fwriction: review, The Puritan, Emerge Literary Journal, and others.