September 2012

Rebecca Silber


Zeal by Andrew Bailey

British poet Andrew Bailey's debut collection, Zeal, uses a wide variety of formats -- short poems, long poems, free verse poems, and poems that pose questions. In addition, Bailey integrates natural imagery into his poetry. Sea, sand, animals, plants, fire, moon, rain, and stars all abound and often overshadow human themes. Poetry so often provides woe-filled glimpses into the human condition; I found Bailey's abundance, even celebration, of the often overlooked elements that surround people, refreshing. That all being said, I will admit that Zeal left me feeling a little confused. Almost like the feeling when first waking up from a dream still fresh in my mind, delicately sitting on that thin bridge between still sleeping and regaining consciousness, not yet realizing that it didn't really happen.

This confusion may be fitting, given that Bailey writes in a dream-like rhythmic haze. His words cascade one into the next, bouncing quietly from the page. "Sandcasting" has a particularly striking, repetitive rhythm: "Allowing the sand to fall sand through my fingers / the distance dissolves like the sand through my fingers / sandalwood cardamom sand through my fingers..." Like sand, the words resonate grain-by-grain, syllable-by-syllable in the reader's mind.

I found that the more words one of Bailey's poems has, the more difficult it is to navigate. It bothers me somewhat that the shorter poems are the easiest to decipher; I really want to understand and relate to all of Bailey's poems equally. My favorite poem, "Aspire," is only eleven words: "each particle of sand aspires / to pearl; / such sparse, selective oysters." This poem stands out because it clearly speaks of the human need to be noticed and accepted. Its naked directness is so perfect, the image created, beautiful. Poetry, of course, is intensely personal, but I wish that more of Bailey's poems struck me as this one did.

While metaphors are aplenty in Zeal, there were not many that I could relate to. Comparisons, such as this one in "Pharsalian Sentences," really made me feel left outside of the poem: "The Marsian farmer rose like dough, burst his armour, from / the Prester's bite..." I will sheepishly admit that I had to Google "Marsian" and not much came up. Google asked if I meant to type "Martian." I felt relief that Google was also left bewildered and concluded it was maybe a Dungeons and Dragons reference, more likely a Faust reference, and moved on. Because I was growing rather frustrated, I felt actual excitement when I got to this more universal metaphor in the technology versus nature themed poem "Salamander," "Dust kicks up from walking, one thing, / and dust drifts in the air -- what's the mask for / if not for this? Trying not to wipe it / like avoiding liplicking during a donut..."

The sweet taste of donut glaze is quickly replaced with nausea upon reading "Mouse Station," a poem I'm almost certain is about mice eating, or at least crawling all over, a human. Disgusting, yes, but also written as beautifully as a poem about such a subject could be written. "The sound is now / the scrabble of paws of mice as mice pour as if funnelled / on the body..." In direct juxtaposition, "Sea-Girl Wreathed with Seaweed" presents death in a peaceful, almost inviting light as the reader is beckoned to join a sea-girl already "so deep / that the weeds dance in anglerfish light." If the reader is not tempted to join the sea-girl by the end of the poem, then the final line adds a convincing argument to do so: "It is a small price, / to be dead, to be free of the fear of becoming so."

Yes, the majority of Bailey's poems in Zeal left me befuddled, but I was able to connect with a few of them. While it's preferable to enjoy a complete collection of poetry and not just a handful of poems, I would still encourage giving Zeal a read -- at the very least for the chance to slip into Bailey's poetic subconscious mind.

Zeal by Andrew Bailey
Enitharmon Press
ISBN: 978-1907587207
72 pages