June 2012

Elizabeth Cantwell


FJORDS vol. 1 by Zachary Schomburg

Years ago, my grandfather told me a story about a man predicting his own death. The details of it are lost to me now -- I believe the man in the story dreams about his death, foresees that it will occur violently in a certain field. Attempting to avoid that fate, he acquires some vicious guard dogs to ward off danger. And then one day he comes to the very spot on which he's dreamed he'll die, and he becomes terrified, and the dogs sense his fear and turn on him. So he does die on that spot. Like something out of Oedipus, he's caused the death he knew was coming.

That story was in the front of my mind as I read Zachary Schomburg's third full-length collection of poems, FJORDS vol. 1. The book opens with the line "From the very beginning I knew exactly what would kill me." The curious thing about the speaker's prediction is not only that it's true, but also that it kicks off a series of innumerable other deaths, all perhaps caused by the speaker's own obsessions and anxieties.

If you are familiar with Zachary Schomburg's work, you'll be familiar with his compact prose poems, his preference for the sentence over the line, his surreal worlds, his intrusive animals that waver between comforting and terrifying. But FJORDS vol. 1 is not simply a retreading of old territory. It seems to follow a logical progression in Schomburg's oeuvre. The Man Suit, Schomburg's first book, can be read as a sort of discovery of the world. A waking up to the impossible weirdness of what we've all agreed to live in: an exploration of the most-present present. Scary, No Scary, book number two, is a nostalgic exploration of the bizarre nature of childhood -- and a reinterpretation of the present through that lens of the past. And FJORDS vol. 1 is about the future. It's about the fear that comes with talking about the future, with dreaming about the future -- and the specific fear of death that at times becomes so obsessive that it approaches a desire for death.

At times, Schomburg implies that we might desire death because of the nature of twenty-first-century life: a surreal, intrusive, over-stimulating, impossible experience. "I grew old distracting myself from what I knew to be true," the narrator says. How many of us have done this, are doing this right now? We know certain things to be true: global warming, obesity, overfishing, decreased attention spans, Michael Bay's existence, advertising, pink slime masquerading as meat. But to think about these things is terrifying. And so we distract ourselves instead: we check email, we watch YouTube videos of pigs playing with dogs, we TiVo Jimmy Fallon, we run ourselves ragged on treadmills at the gym.

What we don't do if we're trying to avoid reality is write poems, because writing poems is never really a way to escape. It is only a way to embroil yourself further, a way of reckoning. A way of experiencing these deaths and trying to come to terms with what they really are. Schomburg knows this.

And yes, "deaths" is plural. Because we all die multiple deaths, don't we? We die in our dreams all the time. We die in our memories. We die in our photographs. In "Death Letter," the speaker receives a letter stating that the woman he loves is dead. But when he arrives at her house with flowers to pay his respects, he discovers that she is still alive. "When I walk away, flowers in my fist, I think about all the different kinds of death. I wish she would have been dead just like the letter said. There is more truth in that kind of death."

Let's talk about truth. Schomburg's poems are manifestly not "true," in that they unfold in impossible worlds; yet there is something to be said for truth as a tone in Schomburg's work. For a kind of "sincerity" that is not cloying or maudlin because it takes surreal forms. It is possible to be truthful when talking about hawks made out of donuts, in a more real way than the truth that comes with a recitation of historical facts. I know that I am the most true when I am talking about irrational things. I am more true when I say "Sometimes I think the baristas at Starbucks are lying to me" or "I worry that if I get my teeth straightened I will not be able to recognize myself" than when I say "I washed a pair of jeans today."

"Truth" is an entry in the index to this book. All of Schomburg's books have indices, a device that verges on cute-gimmick territory. But the indices operate on more intentional levels. They seem, in part, to taunt the critic who would analyze the book; "Here, I know you're interested in themes, so I pointed some out for you." But they don't just identify themes, they testify to them. There is something to be said for acknowledging your obsessions, owning up to the things you can't get away from -- organizing them alphabetically to give them some semblance of order, when really they're raging inside your head.

"The world is always as it is, and always as it seems," as Schomburg notes in "The Animal Spell." There will always be black swans and refrigerators and fists and eyes everywhere we look. What can you really do about that but write it down and note the page numbers and try not to let it swallow you up? That is the only honest option. In "A Life In Space," Schomburg writes, "You promised me we'd live in a different universe, but when we arrived, everything was the same -- the gravity, the stars lined up like teeth." There is no different universe. There's just this one, over and over. These days, these deaths. And if there is any comfort, it only resides in the most dangerous territory.  

Take "Neighborhood Plague":

My neighbors have been dying, one after the other in a row, each day, from east to west. You told me that if I didn't want to end up dead like my neighbors, that I should keep moving west. That seems like the last direction I'd want to move in.

We should not move in the direction that death is moving -- it will catch up with us, of course. It will sneak up on us from behind and take us and no one around us will care because everyone will be dying, too. No, the solution is to move in the direction from which death has already come. To go back into the wake of death. Only then can we begin to deal with it. Only then can we begin to stop being afraid and start listening. We all have a dead person inside of us ("I Am the Dead Person Inside Me"). And we have to let it breathe to cope with the life we live in now, the life of customized cake frosting and movie theaters and expensive dress shirts and events that seem like causes but don't reap any immediate effects, until we die, and then we think maybe that was the effect. Or we would think that, anyway, if we were still alive to think it.

Schomburg's meditations on death (and on the opposite but equal phenomenon, living forever, which appropriately enough shares an index entry with "Death") often seem to be a way of thinking about what it means to be present, to be breathing in the now, to be a human in a busy world. As much as the speaker might be attempting to fool you into thinking that he thinks it's all meaningless, this whole "let's eat breakfast and go to our jobs and watch movies" routine, it's clear he can't live up to his own cynicism. That he, too, is striving to prove what he feels in his (attacked) heart to be true: that there is some importance at the root of all this, that life (like Schomburg's poetry) will keep surprising us with meanings just when we've given up: "We think we've figured it out, and then it is a fist that comes exploding from our eyes."

FJORDS vol. 1 by Zachary Schomburg
Black Ocean
ISBN: 978-0984475254
72 pages