A REVIEW OF ANNE-MARIE TURZA'S
BY JENNIFER ZILM
The Rusty Toque | Reviews | Issue 7 | November 30, 2014
The quiet is not unlike the pitches thrown by Satchel Paige
in the late 1920s for the Birmingham Black Barons. He
threw the ball as far from the bat and as close to the plate
as possible, said Casey Stengel, who was called the Old
Professor. Hesitation Pitch. Be Ball, Four-Day Creeper.
Bat Dodger. The Barber. Nothin’ Ball.
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus asks three of his disciples to compare him to someone, to use simile to express his essence. The apostle Thomas gains Jesus’s approval--and access to secret knowledge that the others are not privy to—when he states, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying who you are like.” Reading Anne-Marie Turza’s debut collection The Quiet and reflecting on its titular subject this passage kept returning to me. I was also reminded of aphophatic, or negative, theology, a concept I remember only barely and which I filled out with a Wikipedia search after reading the book: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being" (Johannes Scotus Eriugena).
There is an abiding sense of the untranslatable in the book, of something that cannot quite be grasped. In several places the speaker makes use of the images of moths with button holes sewn to their wings (i: vii), noting that “I’m told that moths are not drawn not to the bulb, but to the/ darkness beyond just beyond it, the darkness that light intensifies/ This explains their circling” (“The Veil”). This is not unlike what it is like to read the book: the strange, vivid imagery—which pulls in language from science, myth and Russian literature—is entrancing, and one finds oneself drawn back to it, unable to fully enter its narrative world. Sleep is a theme throughout the book but the pervading mood is not at all dreamy; rather an insomniac logic defines a poetic world where sleep is an industry (“Anthem for a Small Country”), comes only in snippets and is itself a foreign language that the narrator has not mastered (“On Sleep”).
The book is divided into five sections, with sections about The Quiet placed at the beginning middle and the end of the book. The nature of the quiet is unfolded in koan-like passages that rest as little self-contained boxes on the page. The reader is told repeatedly what the quiet is “not unlike” and thus it becomes easier to say what the quiet is not, rather than what it is. The book opens with a fragmentary question: “—and its sound?” (i:i) which is (not) answered with suggestions (“You could say: slender, long-legged.” i:ii;) and disagreements that recall the dispute the blind men have about the nature of elephant: “One says: it was smaller then. And one: it was larger, so/ large, its sound was elsewhere. And one: as in measure-/ments. Counting the charged particles. One says: it’s close and scalpiform. And one: it slips from everything in all directions.”
The infrastructure of the quiet is constructed of the unseen cities, rubble, second story windows. It is known to insects and vermin, moths, spiders, rats, beetles. The human inhabitants of the quiet (always lower caps in the text) include a nameless ‘we’ with relish adorned faces chanting Latin, a man on the back of a snow bear, a midwife who chariots a bobsled led by housecats, “a burned girl in a protective suit. Like a beekeeper” (iii:iv). The quiet is a humming, a buzzing, a sound just beyond the threshold of hearing.
The quiet surrounds the book’s two other sections, Not Mine, Not Anyone’s and Other Buzzing Passages. In these, carefully crafted prose poems composed of exquisite vivid sentences (“We throw rounds of /sausage up into the branches, not high enough: in shower of/ sparse ordinary needles the colour of ripe apricots, something/ must have happened, we tell each other, what, what!”) alternate with lined poems. While there is no obvious reference to the quiet, the theology of the quiet pervades these sections. It is here that the speaker makes reference to a god (like the quiet never capitalized within the text) who is similarly elusive, who is “leaving,/ leave snow to be snow/ of what kinds/of its kinds.// Snow of lit vestibules/Snow shadowed with algebra.”). This deity belongs to no-one, is in charge of “untrue colours” “conditional tenses” (“Dear god — and when I say god, I mean the god”).
The book is meticulously crafted. Despite the lack of obvious narrative structure, each poem is linked to the one before it, creating a coherent whole but with many strong stand alone poems. Each meticulous line is free of any unnecessary words. There are moments of The Quiet that are not unlike moments in Anne Carson, Erin Moure, Alice Notley, but The Quiet has a voice that is its very much its own. It’s an impressive debut.
JENNIFER ZILM's poems can be found in Prism, The Antigonish Review, CV2 , Arc, The Malahat Review and Vallum. She is the author of the chapbook The Whole and Broken Yellows (Frog Hollow Press, 2013). Her first full-length collection is called Waiting Room and will be published by BookThug in Spring 2016. She lives in Vancouver.