What does it mean to write poems about love, mortality, and sadness in the beginning of the 21st Century? How does a poet go about tackling such dead horses in ways that make them wildly hysterical, unbearably familiar, and jaw-droppingly outrageous? Susan Browne’s prize-winning second collection Zephyr slaps the dead horses to life and rides them through the fairytale land of Sad, the wild frontier, a few murderous holy cities, two million square feet of Bloomingdale’s, and her beloved San Francisco Bay Area.
Browne’s playful pessimism, her ability to find the spectacular in everything from a voraciously carnivorous first date to a dying pair of flannel pajamas, and her daringness to examine “the murk inside the mammalian heart,” make Zephyr an exhilarating page-turner. Her gritty approach to narrative and expert ability with language make it a book of intensely well-crafted and human poetry.
The opening poem, “If Not Now, When?” which considers statistical deaths by vending machines, donkeys, and right-handed products, while simultaneously pondering personal tragedies, sets a cynical and humorous tone that persists throughout many of the poems. It also introduces the impersonal “you,” to whom many of the poems are addressed.
The humor is sometimes subtle and tinged with sadness and loss. In the poem “Tuesday,” the impersonal you’s home is robbed while she is away. Lines like “On the table the empty Olympus box / With the warranty, now you don’t have to fill out. The little cardboard form, the flimsy guarantee,” are juxtaposed with more solemn lines like “not a matter of if but when, / As in when you die everything will go.” The poem ends with the heart wrenching image of the violated “you” standing in the mirror draped in all of her jewelry which the thieves somehow overlooked.
In several instances the humor is shocking. In the following poem, a disturbing headline catches the speaker’s attention, but not due to its content:
TWO CLERICS HACKED TO DEATH IN HOLY CITY
I just love that, so let me say it again.
The alliteration alone is admirable, and the cadence—
nothing better than iambic pentameter:
Two Clerics Hacked to Death in Holy City.
Man, that’s got swing, ring-a-ding, and an action
verb. I can really feel it, hack, I can almost see it,
hack, hack, hack. Talk about a wake-up call.
This morning, I’m reading the news, checking in
with the war when like music to my ears:
Two Clerics Hacked to Death in Holy City.
It should win the Pulitzer, or maybe
the Nobel. But then I turn the page,
and listen to this:
A Five-Year-Old Aims his Kalashnikov.
Such lovely triple rhythms! A natural progression,
and I can’t wait to hear tomorrow’s song;
the harmonics of humanity, the croon
of carnage in every holy city.
The poem covers everything from an intense love of language to desensitization due to war and repeated tragedy. One can’t help but laugh while reading it, all the while feeling a terrible sense of guilt. Just as children with guns and murdered clerics are not immune to Browne’s wonderfully biting sarcasm, neither is the poet herself, or the craft of poetry. In “If Not Now, When?” the speaker offers a critique of the demands of the writing process, addressing the impersonal “you” (presumably the speaker herself from a defensive distance) as she attempts to write a poem:
Like everyone else’s, most of your thinking is repetitive.
At your desk, you roll up your sleeves,
and write another poem about death:
We came home from the hospital, sat in the family room.
Dad cried into the couch, then said,
“Mom’s never been dead before.”
You don’t feel like making a transition
to the next stanza because you don’t have 3,000 years.
The cynicism and humor lets up briefly here and there during reflections on a dying Robin in the yard, a haiku by Bashō, and the luck of living through “the Russian roulette / of the mammogram, and the driver behind me going 110” highlighted in the poem “Listen.”
“The Nose on Your Face,” grapples with the idea of one’s physical self being a stranger to the psychological self, and offers it as a possible explanation for the human compulsion to stare at our own reflections and portraits—we are in search of the self seen by everyone else:
In all your life, you will never see your actual face.
If you close one eye, you can gaze
at the side of your nose, but that’s it.
Is that why when looking at group photographs,
it’s yourself you stare at the longest?
Sometimes you’re mistaken for someone else,
And you want to meet her, see for yourself yourself,
but even if you met a gang of doppelgangers,
you will continue searching in hubcaps, sauce pans
toasters, the backs of spoons, the bases of lamps,
in sunglasses, in another person’s eyes,
and if that person is standing in just the right light,
there you are, trying to get closer.
By addressing the impersonal “you” in a matter-of-fact tone and offering a number of specific objects, the reader can’t help but question his or her own tendencies to search for the self in reflective surfaces.
Browne’s precise details and stunning images balance the more narrative ponderings and confessions of the damaged human psyche. In “Listen” the analogy is made between human fragility (the mammogram, the lead-foot) and “the sky like a blue egg / balanced on high dark walls, / the broken fountain with its few shining pennies.” Moments like this reinforce the idea that the broken world the speaker is so at odds with is as beautiful as ever.
With lines like “Things have been a little easier since I realized God / is the pizza guy,” “I’m not that good a person / And I know it’s true / Because I don’t feel that bad about it,” and A friend told me once / he didn’t believe in death. / When he died, there was a party,” it’s hard to resist this book. The reader wants to keep reading in order to experience the cruel, insane, beautiful world right along with the speaker—and to see what gritty and hysterical truths she will unearth next.
Zephyr, the Editor’s Choice for the 2009 Steel Toe Books Prize in Poetry, follows Browne’s first book, Buddha’s Dogs, which was selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the Four Way Book Intro Prize in Poetry. I recommend both books enthusiastically and can’t wait to see where this witty and courageous poet goes from here.
We’ve interviewed Susan Browne about Zephyr! Read it here.
Zephyr, Steel Toe Books, 2009. Reviewed by Carrie Moniz.