Word For/Word [ Issue 17: Summer, 2010 ] [ Previous ] [ Next ] [ Notes ]

Alexandra Mattraw

Review of Andrew Zawacki's Petals of Zero Petals of One (Talisman House, 2009)

 “But I was never real Georgia/ but the hell if I know what is.”  Certainly, in his third book, Petals of Zero Petals of One, Andrew Zawacki takes on the problem of “I,” of “what is,” and of how to find beauty in the ever eroding landscape of the technotronic, globalized “we.”  The book, divided into three long poems, seems to evolve from an endless, inconclusive argument the poet has with himself: Where do we find identity and meaning in a virtual world where nature itself is simulated?  While his questions are of course nothing new to the postmodern ear, the innovative music and dissonance of his language can be exhilarating.  Not surprisingly, Zawacki cites Louis Zukofsky in “Georgia” and has been compared to the Objectivist who ostensibly views a poem’s “sound” as its own worthy “sense.” 

In all three poems, Zawacki’s heavily enjambed and rarely punctuated lines refuse linear translation.  His dislocating imagery paints an ethereal, even terrifying otherworld.  Crowned by an epigraph by Jack Spicer, readers can surmise a key for the thematics and poetics of the work: “The wires in the rose are beautiful.”  Zawacki seeks beauty in the programmed, “the chromed,” the simulcast,” “the nickel plated leaves,” the world that is now forever interrupted by what makes it. Spicer’s “poet as radio” theory of the muse also shines through many of the passages that feel like overheard static.  Though some will find Zawacki’s penchant for repetition and word play indulgent, the concentration the poems demand always rewards readers with a feast of song.


In the marathon-opening tirade that is “Georgia,” arguably the most stunning gem of the book, “I” rages from a post-apocalyptic shadow world.  “I” is you, me, the poet, and the post 9/11, Great Recession citizen who is tired of competing with the ones and zeros of the logarithm state: “simulacra Georgia/ everything’s dirty and doubled Georgia . . . everything is breakable Georgia.”  Here, nature has been removed.  Embittered by pixeled light that make perception devious and meaning tenuous, the speaker struggles to locate a stable reality and speak of his suffering (“the question of is is is it Georgia”).  Yet even speech is broken: “Syllables virused by syllables Georgia.”  The paralysis and shadow of the poem are rooted in works like Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” and in fact, Zawacki slips into some of Eliot’s purgatory motifs: “I’m a scarecrow Georgia,” “my voice shot Georgia,” “I walk wolfstep into the shadow,” and “me/ and you/ and the hollow between.”

The poem’s anger is only magnified by its double spaced, single lines and its lack of stabilizing stanzas.  All lines lack periods with the exception of the heavy-handed punches of the repeated “Georgia” address.  The alacrity of this echoing accusation pummels us with compelling force.  I can’t help but hear “Georgia” as a sister poem to the repeated taunts of Ginsberg’s similarly sarcastic “America”: “America. . .Go fuck yourself with your Atom bomb.”  Such political disgust finds comradery in Zawacki’s letter to the Georgian state where he lives and teaches: “You’re a bitch Georgia,” “and fuck you anyway.” 


Yet who is this Georgia really? She is America, industry, capitalism, God, and Beckett’s “Godot” who never arrives: “I call out Georgia/ because that you/ because that you are whatever.” Nonetheless, the poem, like the rest of the book, is still concerned with salvaging beauty that can only be found in disaster’s aftermath: “I love every last noise on the violet fields…I listen Georgia/ to the racket the clatter…the anvil’s hymnal.”  Indeed, it’s the traceable dissonance such a visceral world makes that allows it to retain meaning.

In the book’s central poem, “Arrow’s Shadow,” Zawacki focuses more on the potential of language itself through an electro-lens that views nature with a kind of techno-dialect.  This poem’s panoramic if stuttering gaze can feel obscure, as we are not given the personal “I” of “Georgia” or a subject that is as clear.  Instead, the dislocating lines unfold more as oft-sheered pieces of music, laden with word play, repetition, consonance and assonance, hyphenated breaks, and more vertigo inducing enjambment:


cascara and liquid ambar sputter

a pirate copied patois
in sequences of non sequitur
and inter-
rupted inter-
 rupting shortwave intimacy


This series refuses direct parsing.  The form continually alienates the reader as the eye is forced to readjust itself with every new right justified line while it tries to make sense of the word-shards on the page.  Here is the poet at play.  Zawacki flexes his linguistic muscles and fiddles like a precocious child flaunting a Rubic's cube: every word is turned around like a toy broken down into something else before we even have a chance to digest what it is: “the ana’/gram and gram/-mar of mar-/ gins and mar-/ igolds.”  Not everyone enjoys watching a Mensa at play though, and some readers may grow exhausted with this arguable indulgence.  Or, we might see this as a faithful testimony to all we have authority over: slippery words that are impossible to hold on to for long.


Nonetheless, “Arrow’s Shadow” can be read as an elegy to the demise of our natural world.  Nature emerges often, but it is as if a Romanticist has been caught inside an iphone and can only echo back the pictures he found there in cryptic codes.  Here, the “heart is an ideogram,” there are “compact disks in the cherry tree,” and we get the feeling the poem, not only the world, is “a dyslexic, low caliber dusk.”  Still, the yearning of this static feedback urges readers to push on.


But who is the archer of “Arrow’s Shadow”?  Perhaps, Zawacki himself: “The archer unsheathes a rapture, nocks a scripture.”  We might see the arrow as the words and poems themselves: “A syntax lax in the draw…to pure event, a marrow.”  An ambitious archer, indeed.  The words that are shot out continually reinterpret themselves in an ironic vortex where there is no core, but “periph-/eries are the centers of things.”  And so this section reads as a kind of poetics with which to understand the other two poems that bookend it.  The point?  To make a poem that “ruches our eyes with its arc, like a fright train of bl-/ack and blu-/ue and a fuckload of beautiful noise.”  To make music of course.


Zawacki closes the book with its shortest and most personal poem series.  He stabilizes the narrative voice with a return to standard left justified lines of matching lengths.  With its more intimate “I” and “you,” this section immediately draws us in with tenderness: “if let me have/ my life it’s what I have/ if most/ be fair in love & war but we/ were never.”  Moments of raw honesty in a broken domestic scene make this a good anchor poem for the more abstract experimentation of the other two pieces.  Yet Zawacki never offers full closure to his questions.  Such “if” subordinate clauses in the preceding passage hang repeatedly throughout the series but are never answered by a “then,” mirroring the struggle to find a stable “is” in “Georgia.”  Spotted with several emotionally weighted “I” confessions, this series perhaps does the most to convey Zawacki’s reflections about himself as person and poet.  We can even read the “you” here as the poet who addresses himself as one who has become inevitably shattered through the process of composition: “Panning the river of where/ he went for signs of where I/ went.” “I” can be read as the emissary of Spicer’s poetics—the poet who must lose his ego in order to act as satellite for the muse’s radio transmissions.  But what is the cost of ego-letting for poetic vision?  “Storm Lustral: Unevensong” argues it is the poet’s inner core—the author himself.  Rimbaud’s “J’est un autre” feels tangible here, but perhaps more in Barthes’ sense that language writes the author and not the other way around: “although every/ written must/ other its author.”  Still, the mourning of this loss is a universal ache in our economically depressed world, ever eager to replace human intimacy for “talcum code.”


Fresh and luscious imagery strike often in “Unevensong”: the sky is “varicose,” and in the distance,


A tractor rasping its talon
along the dune
& dawn lifting saffron
 blanched to floss silk
off the sound.


Such thick visuals allow us to swim in a postmodern painting where we can literally caress the colors of Zawacki’s song.


In all of these poems, Zawacki has a wonderful way of critiquing what’s missing in our 2010 simulacrum while filling it in with plenty of his own.  His fractured forms, bent images, word play, and slippery grammar make his zerologue brighten as uneven but as true lyric.  Perhaps this is a “tale of the splinter” ("Unevensong") but we get the feeling that is the point.  Words have no other place to go but inside our technojargon playroom where at least their new combinations look and sound beautiful:


here, in the romper room, the red-
                     light district of the lyric
                the rose and the UV rays it
   reads are out-
                                                             sourced, hyper-
            linked, filtered through the autobahns of abra-


These might be petals of zero, but their song gleams visibly in “an absence that/ render[s] it seen.”