Tuesday, July 10, 2007

on poetry: Andrew Zawacki

Sitting on the sixth floor of the Wilson Wing in Wake Forest's ZSR Library, approaching page one hundred of Idea of the Vernacular (a fantastic edition of prologues edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor and Ruth Evans), I found myself haunted by a phrase. I'm cursed with a memory that picks up whole paragraphs from books I read, and endless scores from Disney movies play through my mind (product of a childhood spent reproducing them in the basement with my sisters) on any given day.

Back in March of 2006, I went to a poetry reading in NYC which featured two poets I'd list fairly high up on my list of poets I read in my spare time: Mark Strand, who was reading from Man and Camel, his newest collection, and Andrew Zawacki, who if I recall was reading something that was still in-progress. I've known Strand's work for awhile, but Zawacki was entirely new to me. The line running through my head today is his -- "fidelity to a language faithful only to itself." I've no idea if it's appeared anywhere in print yet, but I know I hope it does so, and soon, for with Geoffrey Hill's "not difference but strange likeness" (found by way of Christopher Jones' fantastic book that borrows its name from the line in "Mercian Hymns"), it's one of the few lines that sticks with me on a near-daily basis.

That said, a book I'm planning to read, and soon -- as soon as I can get my hands on it, in fact -- is Zawacki's Anabranch. Granted, two of my friends who happen to be poets recommended I read it...

an age ago. And of course, I was more than willing to entertain the suggestion and then go right back to the work I needed to get done more quickly, like reading for the exams that, ironically enough, I am still reading for today. Today, however, feeling haunted by that line and as though, perhaps, for all my Old English Verse Saints Lives I hadn't really been reading poetry these past few weeks, I ended up spending more time than I meant to looking up Zawacki's work.

I found out rather quickly, however, that for the moment, there will be no reading of Anabranch for me -- at least not immediately. Wake's library, though deep in terms of its collection of poetry, doesn't have it. I was disappointed, but not despondent -- after all, that's what they created interlibrary loan for! Unwilling to just let it go, however, I started looking online, to see what of his poetry I could find. My search did not go unrewarded, and hence my blog post today.

First: this page on UPNE's site for Anabranch. It features the poem "Credo," which I've heard friends mention but never read. I'm not sure I have words for this poem, and so perhaps it's best to let you discover it for yourselves, though I'd suggest you use this link to do so, as the other site loses the line breaks, which is a loss I can't tolerate. After all, a part of what makes this poem so beautiful is the fact that its lines follow one another in a manner both fluid and broken -- a manner that subtly reminds me of how tentative a thing belief (in anything) is.

"I believe / in the violence of not knowing" is the line that caught me. A hundred different timbres are possible in this line, and I can't read it the same way twice. Belief isn't necessarily comforting, nor is it necessarily meant to be so. Following on these lines: "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." Again, it's only half as beautiful without the arrangement on the page -- but I think the sense is still there. There's a knowledge in these lines -- ostensibly of rivers -- but of rivers that are, in some sense, like whoever the "you" might refer to. The "you" is indistinct: but its presence (perhaps believed?) is part of the way in which the poem proceeds in its thinking. Weather and self and rivers and rain and "you" -- all of these are both connected and disconnected, distinct and whole entities that are the site of a kind of fracturing, an ending that is inscribed in the very belief that believes them. The final lines of the poem: "Let there be / no mistake: / I do not believe / things are reborn in fire. / They're consumed by fire / & fire has a life of its own."

Early meditations, but given that I'm going to be reading the whole of Anabranch as soon as it comes in -- I'm confident I'll have more to say about "Credo" once I've seen the entirety of the work it begins.

Edit: I always have more to say once I get home, but aside from the line of analysis I added above, I realized on the way home, this reminded me of the mystics. A kind of indistinct promise haunts this "Credo" -- it's like the line in deCerteau's The Mystic Fable - about Angelus Silesius, though this is clearly a completely different way of expressing the same conditionality -- perhaps not marked by mode or mood so much as tone:

In the middle of the seventeenth centuy, Angelus Silesius, whose poems aspired to the paternal word that would call him son used the conditional whenever he referred to that founding nomination, as if, by that suspensive modality, he were admitting that he already knew that what he awaited could no longer come and that he had nothing but the "consolation" of musical strophes repeating an aspiration while lulling a mourning to sleep.
That kind of belatedness isn't explicit in "Credo", but I think Zawacki's particular brand of the conditional -- the violence in not knowing, perhaps -- shares something with deCerteau's words. It goes beyond that both are beautiful -- but I'm still not sure I have words to articulate it. Anyone else want to give it a go? ---/end edit

The other thing I found on the internet was a review Zawacki wrote for the Boston Review of a book of poetry called Some Values of Landscape and Weather by Peter Gizzi. I thought the review by Zawacki was compelling, and the last lines highlighted what, for me, are two of the chief characteristics of a good writer. First: He has an ending that can take your breath away. Second: He is skilled in the art of juxtaposing words -- his own and others. So here's the last paragraph, for your perusal.

The fantasy of totality is foiled by “plural depth,” and the rival demands placed on ourselves should, whether leveled from outside or by ourselves, be acknowledged. “It’s good to not break in America,” Gizzi admits in his “Revival” for the late Gregory Corso, praising elsewhere what “might finally break us, and that is good.” According to Some Values of Landscape and Weather, we live generic yet singular, isolated yet shared lives that, though insufficient, somehow suffice nonetheless. That our days and nights constitute a fractured, finite, unfinished narrative running “upon a time / and goes like this” is not a new insight. Gizzi offers unique reasons, however, for putting the questions life poses into that other form of questioning known as the poem. Because “beauty walks this world.” Because “the earth is porous and we fall constantly.” Because “every thing is poetry here,” and “poetry can catch you in the headlights."

Consider me caught. Luckily, Gizzi's book is available -- along with Zawacki's earlier work, By Reason of Breakings -- in ZSR. Which means I have one more stop to make before I go home for the day, and a lovely evening of reading ahead.