Come On All You Ghosts, by Matthew Zapruder.
Copper Canyon Press.$16.00.
Like a distracted party host, Matthew Zapruder greets us several times over in Come On All You Ghosts, his third book. “Hello everyone,” he writes. “Hello you.” Poetic salutations to readers aren’t new—one finds them in Primus St. John, in Philip Whalen—but recently, they seem to have attained a pained glibness. Another example from another poet: “It’s a lonely world. / Hi everybody / It’s Dorothea, Dorothea Lasky.”
Sounds friendly enough. But Zapruder and Lasky aren’t actually addressing you: they don’t know you. Nor are they addressing an “everyone” or an “everybody,” because you, the reader, are likely sitting alone with their books, declaiming their words to your tabby cat. No matter how energetic their rhetorical waves, these poets are merely acknowledging their isolation—and yours—in a single swoop.
Zapruder’s poetry, which stresses the solidarity born of such solitude, offers the morose comforts of group therapy. His often marvelous title poem “Come On All You Ghosts” exhorts all of us, that same mysterious “everyone,” to “come on” and join him. Here he appeals to both the reader and a ghost he “shyly name[s] Aglow”:
Are you there Aglow
I said in my mind
reader, exactly the way
you just heard it
in yours about four
poem time units ago
unless you have already
put down the paper directly
after the mention
of poetry or ghosts.
Coy, adorable, Zapruder timidly names his ghost, silently asks whether the phantom is there, claims we heard his unuttered words, and imagines we may have put down the poem already: he is anxious about speaking, and we, he fears, are shy of reading. Even when, later in the poem, Zapruder’s private lament explodes into a generous wish (“bring your sorrow / for everyone out into the street, // in the sun”), we can’t forget his initial implication that there may be no “everyone,” that he may be hailing a nonexistent crowd, a congregation of ghosts. In an essay for this magazine, David Orr described contemporary poetry as “a self-enclosed world created by a singular voice...often speaking to itself in meditative solitude.” The depiction fits Zapruder, whose Whitmanian forays feel willfully wobbly: Come On All You Ghosts is less soapbox than echo box.
Even in “Automated Regret Machine,” which buzzes with connectivity, human contact remains limited, if not imaginary. Watching the news, Zapruder sees people standing on rooftops in a flooded town, waving signs at the helicopters far above them. Then, he writes:
of the very large yellow house
of the second half of my childhood, how through
my bedroom window I could reach my hand
out and upward and touch
the branch of an elm. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Though I am at least halfway through
my life, part of my spirit
still lives there, thinking very soon
I will go down to the room where my father
carefully places his fingers on the strings of the guitar
he bought a few years before I was born.
Halfway through his life, Zapruder makes a lonely Dante, envisioning himself in the underworld of a long-gone house to commune with a father who serves—holding a guitar that may resonate, for us, as a lyre—as a symbol for poetic fathers, too. Poignantly, this journey from present to past, from isolation to communication, happens only in Zapruder’s mind—much like his addresses to “everyone.”
While The Pajamaist (2006) remained warm and charming no matter how alarming the problems it intimated, Come On All You Ghosts sometimes aims to estrange. Here Zapruder presents modern science in Miltonic syntax:
green laboratories experiments
in the realm of tiny particles
are being for our vast benefit
—From “Poem for Hanna”
To match the mysteriousness of the situation (what experiments? what particles? what do you mean, green laboratories?) Zapruder cultivates confusion, loading his nouns with adjectives, delaying the verb for a discomfitingly long time. In another poem, adjectives pollute more than a full line of “the fabulous / empty pale blue almost white desert / sky,” and the “pure white drug / interdiction blimp” nearly sinks under the weight of its modifiers. The more Zapruder labors to describe, the further he takes you from reality; in his hands, language itself becomes a distraction, a distancing tool. (I guess we sensed that from the moment he said hello.)
These stylistic adventures express unrelatability at the risk of unreadability. Yet at several moments in Come On All You Ghosts—in poems such as “Lamp Day,” “Work,” “Poem for Ferlin-ghetti”—Zapruder jars us gently, sharing observations that reveal rather than obscure, that please rather than fatigue. Sample his Wordsworth-infused treat, “The Prelude”:
Oh this Diet Coke is really good,
though come to think of it it tastes
like nothing plus the idea of chocolate,
or an acquaintance of chocolate
speaking fondly of certain times
it and chocolate had spoken of nothing,
or nothing remembering a field
in which it once ate the most wondrous
sandwich of ham and rustic chambered cheese
yet still wished for a piece of chocolate
before the lone walk back through
the corn then the darkening forest
to the disappointing village and its super
creepy bed and breakfast. With secret despair
I returned to the city.
Like Diet Coke, these lines constitute a delectable experiment in artificiality—a series of speculations that gain detail as they bubble higher into fancy. By the time Zapruder gets to nothing’s delicious sandwich and scary walk, we’ve nearly forgotten about the soda, and the “I” surprises us: it seems to have popped full-formed out of nothing’s reminiscence. Perhaps, for Zapruder, that is where the self rests—removed from reality, nested in the whorls of imagination, where it can join with readers, fathers, and all the other ghosts.
If There Is Something to Desire, by Vera Pavlova. Tr. by Steven Seymour.
Alfred A. Knopf.$24.00.
The brief poems in Vera Pavlova’s If There Is Something to Desire mourn and glorify the moment—particularly its capacity to pass faster or to linger longer than logic suggests it should. The Russian writer’s lyrics begin not with titles but with numbers, and reading through them recalls the rueful march through the calendar year. Her best work protests time, holding the reader up while splitting into divergent meanings, and then splitting again, eventually crystallizing into verbal fractals. Those arresting efforts suggest the immortality of the things of this world—not merely Pavlova’s poetry but also love, which provides this book its subject.
Her title poem, an analysis of the puzzle of permanence, constructs a temporal ziggurat that features a stepwise pattern up from “is” to “will be” and back down to “was”:
If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
There will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire.
Imagined future as well as imagined past condense into this spot of time, which at once comforts the sufferer of longtime romantic mourning and slyly undercuts its own sympathy. Its terms are curiously vague. “If there is something to desire”? What exactly did you desire, reader? (Was it the hair, and only the hair?) This poem might point toward the silliness of love potions and their hangovers just as easily as it might alleviate the serious pain of a terminated affair. Yet Pavlova insists that—whether we love loopily or lucidly—we will remember our present relationship, suggesting that it is both doomed and unforgettable, mortal and immortal.
That paradox fuels another of Pavlova’s more provocative poems, which—like the last—adapts the form of a logical proof to explore a most illogical phenomenon:
The two are in love and happy.
“When you are not here,
it feels as though you
had just stepped out
and are in a room next door.”
“When you step out
and are in a room next door,
it feels as though
you do not exist anymore.”
Why does the woman in this quietly urgent poem fear loss? Is it a reflection of the sincerity of her affection? Or does the worry hint at a weakness of her love, its capacity to vanish when the beloved himself does (or even before)? Does this poem suggest love’s power or its evanescence? Perhaps, like the last, it suggests both, and that those distinct qualities complement each other surprisingly well—rather like this man and woman, who are, despite it all, happy.
Joy rarely comes without pathos for Pavlova. Take this delightful and disturbing observation—an interpretation of the goofy act that certainly demands some explanation from someone:
maybe, this is how He wants to check by ear: are we still intact?
No cracks in mortal vessels? And to this end He bangs
men against women?
Becoming one with another person is the sole way to prove that you yourself survive in one piece. Yet that very check—that happy, er, clap—is just what risks breaking you apart.
While capable of striking a balance between coyness and candor, Pavlova sometimes loses her sense of indirection and crashes into crassness. This excessively physicalized poem gives pause, but not in quite the same way as the delicate efforts above:
your flesh so full
that I do not feel it
on top of me.
It’s hard to muster any intelligent response to this disclosure save, perhaps, Really? I wonder if, without noticing, I’ve imbibed the dry Puritanism that other nations so often smell on American breath. But I suspect even a Muscovite would find these lines from another poem hard to swallow: “May I erase with my lips / your exclamation mark?” On occasion, one suspects translation may be at fault for such awkwardness, though in general the work of Steven Seymour—Pavlova’s husband—is marvelously musical, rich with sound echoes and rhythmic complexity.
Most poems in this collection shock neither by ludicrous crudeness nor by sophisticated subtlety: their slightness in form tends to correspond with slightness of content, and they pass by like so many ordinary dates. But every now and again—as when seeking love—you discover something splendid. This poem answers one of the book’s fears by suggesting that the end of relationships may mark the beginning of understanding:
Basked in the sun,
listened to birds,
licked off raindrops,
and only in flight
the leaf saw the tree
what it had been.
Only after losing its hold on the tree does the leaf first “grasp” knowledge of its own identity—and Pavlova plants the noun “leaf” so late that we, like the leaf, spend time wondering what it is. The most fruitful ambiguity of the poem circles around “it,” which may refer to the leaf, the tree, or the union of both, an “it” that no longer exists. Was the leaf a leaf only so long as it held onto the tree—but can it understand itself as a leaf only once it’s left the tree? Are we complete only in incompletion, and present only in leave-taking?
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cycle of mortality-haunted love poetry, Sonnets from the Portuguese, she seeks “a place to stand and love in for a day, / With darkness and the death-hour rounding it.” She knows—to borrow a phrase from her husband Robert—how “the good minute goes.” Pavlova’s minutes go quickly, but some of them are good indeed.
Bird Eating Bird, by Kristin Naca. Harper Perennial.$13.99.
In Leonard Bernstein’s revelatory and ridiculous playlet Bull Session in the Rockies, a lyric poet motors through the American West while driving home this comparison between music and words: “Whenwords are in the hands of an artist, a poet, they can acquire a value of their own, over and above the mental image they convey,” thus becoming “more like notes, which exist basically for their own sake and not for any representational idea.”
Kristen Naca’s often mellifluous first collection delivers sound in concert with sense, but—in accordance with the lyric poet’s theory—the former lures attention away from the latter, so that on first reading, you hear the poetry rather than understand it. She estranges American readers from our own language even as she introduces us to its musical undertones:
Her lips, red gathering in the creases when she puckers.
Endings that are dirty tricks and also feathers.
Red water out the pipes, teeming from the rusty gutters.
—From “Speaking English is Like”
When her uneasily bilingual poetry incorporates Spanish, she at once draws English speakers closer to her own experience—a Filipina-American, Naca grew up with Spanish and English in her ears—and alienates those of us who don’t know the other language well. Like the Nuyorican Poets, Naca occupies one of America’s many linguistic borderlands, and seems at home neither in Spanish nor in English: when using one, she must always negotiate with the other. In Bird Eating Bird, that discord echoes through the reader’s experience too.
Naca precedes four of her English poems with their Spanish versions, providing all but the perfectly bilingual with readerly green cards: she invites us in, but only so far. At other moments, she mixes the languages, translating the Spanish phrases only sometimes. When she does, she places English translations to the right of Spanish words, creating a verbal seesaw that’s hard for the monolingual reader to balance: if you attend only to the Spanish, you sink into confusion; if you stop looking at the poem to glance at the English, you break the rhythm of reading. Whether she places translations on the following page, requiring page flipping, or on the same line, necessitating eye flicking, she forces imperfect options on the reader—a reflection, perhaps, of the strained hybridity of her own bicultural experience.
Yet meaning emanates from that awkwardness. The translated phrases clustering to the right of the poem clump into short stanzas of their own, commenting on the original. Then Naca’s text seems most like a score, scripting concurrent cadences that are impossible to read, and hear, at once. This dual effect proves particularly effective in poems about couples. While the speaker describes a romantic encounter, the translation of assorted phrases floats on the right-hand margin, permitting another voice to assert:
you didn’t stop staring
you alone were completely
beautiful and sensual
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
How I fell into your arms
—From “Gavilán o Paloma”
One of Naca’s finest pieces, “House,” melds not only languages but also genres, subjects, and styles. This surreal prose poem describes the identity crisis of the word “house,” and it reads like a children’sstory embedded with linguistic morals. Characteristically, Naca focuses first on sonics. She highlights the heinous “h,” a letter Shakespeare’s multilingual pedant Holofernes dubbed an “abhomination.” (Sometimes—as in Spanish—it’s silent; sometimes—as in French—it’s silent in ways that complicate matters anyway; sometimes—as in English—it’s silent only sometimes.) Naca describes the pronunciation of a Spanish-style “house,” without that “chimneystack, cleft of a letter.” After a war of words whose complexities exceed the scope of this chronicle—let’s just say some letters aren’t happy that others get pronounced louder and more consistently than they do—that silent “h” feels unwanted, and goes wandering, an alphabetic Cain:
And for the rest of her days misfortune followed her, sentence, language, country, continent. . . . In Spanish, ‘h’ suffered mistaken identity: ¿‘Hache’ o ‘ge’ o ‘equis’ o ‘jota,’ ¿cuál es su nombre, ‘h’? The Spanish words said.
Naca doesn’t translate that sentence, which asks the name of “h”: is it “h,” “g,” “x,” “j”? (In Spanish, each of those letters can be pronounced the same way, like the “h” in “ha.”) Various Spanish constructions also use “hache,” “ge,” “equis,” and “jota” interchangeably, as placeholder terms. In such subtle ways does Naca build the problems of insignificance, of homelessness, of namelessness, into this parable of a single letter, and remind that major issues of immigrant experience are writ small in problems of pronunciation. In “House,” Naca’s fascination with sound becomes political as well as poetic.
When it comes to religion and sex, as well as to language, Naca issues incisive observations from outside established systems—literary knife-throws. Her teasingly titled poem “The Adoration at El Montan Motor Lodge” refers not to Catholic devotion but to lesbian sex. “Baptism” describes, rather than its titular event, the slaughtering and roasting of a pig that gets “hoisted onto some posts,” where it “hovered for hours over the orange coals” until “the pork skin transluted.” “Transluted” isn’t a word, though it hints at the ideas of translucence and translation, and recalls verbs like “transubstantiate,” at the core of Christian debates over the contents of the Communion cup. Naca—who places herself literally off to one side of the pig party—can play with language in illuminating ways not despite but because of her location on the periphery.
The poet is not merely on an edge; she’s on edges—between various cultures, languages, ways of life. Does that orientation put her on edge? This book about borders analyzes what happens when objects touch, and often it’s ugly: tobacco stains, water stains, “the cheap nail / polish that pooled between / her cuticle and skin,” “tires leav[ing] tar varnish on the street.” But the volume’s loveliest passage shows a city pretty in purple:
street lamps gauze the town over in purple, when the cool, dimming light of August approaches—houses, and sidewalks, the laundry mat windows, and laundry chiming in the windows of the washing machines, and suds purpling....And lovers soothing against each other in the purple heat of August, leaving swatches of color on the sheets beneath them.
Sometimes—as in Bird Eating Bird—things come together nicely.