on Petals of Zero, Petals of One, poems by Andrew Zawacki (Talisman House)

“Georgia,” the first of three long poems in Petals of Zero, Petals of One, is both incantation and indictment -- pleading and plaint. It’s also a plummet. As a lament, the poem dwells within and bewails the difficulties of understanding. It implores Georgia for compassionate response. It flatters with attention, and then demeans its Georgia-listener, now the cause of this long and agitated distress signal. But “Georgia” also honors its own manner of speaking, hurtling down the page. Inspired by the French surrealist Phillipe Soupault, the poem’s voice conjures itself out of ephemeral, meager materials, one phrase blurted after another, a long chain of tenuous but obstinate context, beginning:

I don’t sleep Georgia

I shoot bullets into the dark

the blunt mimeographic dark

the middle dark Georgia

outside the outside

whatever a ghost’s front tooth is Georgia

let alone ballistics

ZawackiCover.jpg

Impassioned, urgent, sometimes funny or coy or miffed, “Georgia” is always aware of its audience. Georgia may be a southern state, a former Soviet state, a woman – a target for epithets, a place of violence. Georgia hears but will not heed. Even as its theme is failure, the poem’s intention is moving and its execution (given its aims) is altogether successful. The speaker would make everything clear if he only could.

All things that are unlit Georgia

black like lapis in a quitted room

the feedback Georgia

the anvil’s hymnal

a dial-tone looped in a flophouse Georgia

an explosive packed in a microchip

petals of 0 petals of 1

rips a hole of fractal dimension

shrapnel Georgia

collateral damage

call it what you will

ZawackiFace.jpgEvery poet marks his or her distance from what is conventionally personal as well as from what sweeps without resistance through the polis. The language furnishes the space of the distance, yet the poet uses the totems of opposition in such a way that a recognizable world never quite slips away. In “Georgia,” the speaker’s disturbances refer alternately to the private and the public. Here the latter is an overwhelming, elemental presence, packed with overweening zeroes and ones. The private zone is semi-disembodied: “Some say your eyes are charcoal Georgia // some say siren some djinn // I don’t say Georgia // it isn’t for me // I don’t have a bone in my body // the quick have a habit of loitering Georgia.”

“Georgia” is one long solicitation and ruined expectation of response from Georgia. The tone changes when the speaker gets petulant. As his patience runs thin, he accuses the loved/despised one of superficiality and coldness:

but this engine runs on wrenches Georgia

anti-freeze and no egress Georgia

parousia stalled in the parking lot

the phenomenon’s faulty ignition

you’re alasless Georgia

harassless Georgia

from your slackass jeans to your Jesus Georgia

ersatz and alisased

lacking alack

sans any essence or pretense of presence

The stalled engine above could refer both to civilization or the poem, and if Georgia is accused of having no "essence" the same could be said for the speaker. But the filibustered energy of his rant stalls the vote that would negate him. He has been working diligently to make his strange case – but what can we offer in return? What do we ever offer? This poem generates the strange, profound effect of forcing the reader not only to gauge one’s response but to ask how such a thing is measured in the first place. There is a deeply moral impulse at work here, a crack-brained outrage, and sadness.

We often think of Surrealism as playfulness. Some traditionalists think of it as having corroded artistic standards. But French modernism grew out of a fear of cultural dissolution. Paris was under siege during the age of Manet and again during the youth of Andre Breton and Soupault. Like the Italian tradition of austere melancholy as expressed in Leopardi, French artists and writers recognized a suffering that is coincident with the basis of life itself -- not a common theme in English or American poetry. It’s sadness that guards against the fraudulent, claims of moral rectitude, and facile emotion.

zawacki.jpgZawacki has tapped deeply into this consciousness. He talks of “this dragnet that dredges the ends of an earth / what is it Georgia / is it Georgia / or is it not / I can’t figure it Georgia / ‘twont stay in focus / it doesn’t possess a center or an outside / or an in.” And so in “Arrow’s Shadow,” the book’s second poem, the speaker announces “periph- / eries are the centers of other things // by modemsong and binaural breath, lip- / synched and bootlegged along a scrim- / shaw property fence.” The worlds pictured in Petals of Zero, Petals of One have taken possession of the poems’ speaker who now tries to wriggle free or at least tread water. This is a testament, wired and backed up for inevitable disaster recovery, with a “noun locked to a lo-jack” and “a logic-board reef with its rib cage exposed.”

The third poem, “Storm, Lustral. Unevensong,” is the final movement. If the first movement frantically begs for connection and the second speaks beneath a sinister penumbra of techno-threat, the final section re-starts a life-giving grappling where “everything hangs / in the balance / even the balance.” A natural world tries to reemerge, the speaker says it’s necessary to “Believe the weather will / strain its back for / someone no longer & never / was there.” The poet’s language yearns to be like the world in which it is spoken: “give & forgive us / our tagalonglight / our fjords crashing / through thaws of ourselves / analect & veer from an arsenic / sky like a child who guards / a sand castle against / the afternoon / tapping a wrinkle / of salt water / telling the ocean to stop.”

What could be more conventional than the sand castle metaphor? But in Zawacki’s universe, perhaps all metaphors are retrograde, childish, a step behind the thing at hand. Such phrases, like the child’s micro-counterwave, can’t repel or vie with the actual – and so become part of it.

[Published January 15, 2009. 88 pages, $13.95 paperback]