Introduction, by Rachel Zucker
I am frequently asked, “What does your husband think about these poems?” When students ask versions of this question their teachers seem embarrassed or upset, as if such a question inappropriately assumes that my work is autobiographical and that this assumption is unsophisticated. I’m not always sure how to answer the question, but I identify with the urge to ask it and I don’t think the question is a simple one or an inappropriate one (although it might be unanswerable). When Plume asked me to write an introduction to these poems (all of which will appear in my upcoming book The Pedestrians) I asked my husband if he’d like to ask me questions. My work is autobiographical and no one knows me better than he does. I thought it might be interesting to see what questions he might ask when he knows me so well. I suppose it might also satisfy, in some small way, some readers’ desire to know what he thinks or at least what he worries about.
Husband: In the poem “usage,” you write, “the self stripped / to the slender trembling I / escapes me” and later write, “I am all bark.” As the husband of the poet, I often worry that to make your poems you have to make yourself unduly sensitive, to let yourself get hurt by the world. But here you describe a related danger, the danger of losing the “I” and becoming impenetrable. Which should I worry about more, the oversensitivity of the poet or the bark-covered impenetrability of the poet?
Poet-wife: Wow. You’re smart as hell. No wonder I married you! Great question. I think you should worry about both. I certainly do. As a wife, mother, teacher and person who lives in the world, I am concerned about being so vulnerable to the horribleness of the world that I won’t be able to get up and make breakfast and take the kids to school. I do shield myself. I don’t read the newspaper, except for, occasionally, the food and science sections. I’m not on Facebook and can no longer watch certain kinds of violent movies or television, particularily if children are hurt in these stories (even in fictional stories). Part of your role as my husband has evolved into a sort of censor-filter for me. You maintain a very active and engaged relationship to current events and all kinds of contemporary fiction and media. You often vet disturbing things for me. You’ll say, “You need to know that something bad happened…” and lay it out for me in a way that I can hear without being subsumed by it.
On the other hand, I think there’s real cowardice in trying to protect myself this way (both from the outside world and from the inside world). I’m grateful for and frustrated by your relative insensitivity to things that seem unimaginably terrible to me. My goal is not to harden myself. In the moments that I feel myself shutting off, I experience another other kind of fear. Is this shutting off how people (men?) depersonalize themselves and others in ways that lead to violence against living things and the destruction of the environment? So, yes, the stakes feel very high—a question of survival on all levels.
Also, dear Husband-English-teacher, there’s a James Wright reference here. I don’t expect anyone to notice it, but James Wright comes up several times in the book. Wright is a poet that I struggle with in The Pedestrians, especially his poems “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” and “A Blessing.” He is a poet I admire very much but also feel the need to resist. The last lines of “A Blessing” are, “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” I have mixed feelings about Wright’s body breaking into blossom. I believe in the possibility of transformation, but, especially in this book, I want things to be what they are. Part of me feels that something terrible should happen if Wright steps out of his body. I want to take away the last line and just have him break. Stepping out of one’s body is a terrifying and highly problematic, and I resist the way that transformative gesture arrives as an epiphany at the end of that poem as a result of the poet being moved to caress the ear of a pony. There’s something false about it, manipulative. It is a poem that won me over for years. I still admire it but it also disturbs me now.
Husband: Shit, I’m worried that peacefulness is antithetical to makefulness also. Do you really believe this is true, and is our life together fucked as a result?
Poet-wife: First of all, I wonder if it is. I have no idea if it is. I suspect that most writing and art-making do come out of restlessness and discomfort (of body and soul). If I were perfectly content and peaceful, would I feel provoked into writing poetry? Probably not. Should you worry about this? Probably not. First of all, most of my “discontents” or agitations are inextricably linked to my greatest joys, to the things I would never regret or give up. Having children, for example, was a profound crisis-of-self for me and led to a lot of writing. There is almost nothing peaceful about having children. Becoming a mother was deeply agitating and transformative, disruptive to my sense of self, my worldview, my daily experience, my everything. Nothing was the same and nothing was easy. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t what I wanted—it was and is—or that there aren’t moments of extraordinary happiness. We chose, together, to have three children. If we wanted a simple, peaceful, easy life, that was a questionable choice. Also, I am not, by my nature, a very peaceful person. Given our choices and my temperament, I can’t imagine a life so peaceful that I have no desire, no need to write, but if that happened, I hope I would have the good sense to be grateful and enjoy it.
I do think that it is possible to write about happiness or out of happiness or to write without the same level of urgency that I’ve felt through my twenties and thirties. I think that the poems in The Pedestrians are quieter and less urgent (although perhaps even darker) than the ones in Museum of Accidents. I was feeling my way through to trying to write in a wider range of experiences, including greater comfort and peacefulness. Recently (as you know), I experienced a trauma. So far that has not led to any writing at all. So far that trauma has been antithetical to makefulness. I’d prefer to see what peacefulness might bring.
Husband: Your transformation of our son’s social studies homework into a poem about the violence inherent to civilization is really beautiful. Do our children have any hope of being happy? I know this is like a sub-undergraduate question, but I really need to know: at what point does that become a poem for you? As he’s saying it? If I’d been there and called out, as I do sometimes, “you’ll use that in a poem,” would that have killed this poem then and there?
Wife-poet: Thank you. And…. (I see that strikethrough!)…what? Why wouldn’t our children have any hope of being happy? Because I write about them? Or because the world is so complicated and history so full of misery and violence? As for the other parts of this question: I think the spark, in this case, was the beauty of our son’s language, the incongruous sophistication of his vocabulary and vulnerability of his syntax, the heartbreak (for me) inherent in the moment of our son who began as a seed inside me explaining to me the birth of civilization. He was so beautiful and wise and young and trusting (and smug) and open in that moment. It was gorgeous and unbearable. I guess, going back to your earlier question, it was a moment of joy and discomfort (I felt overwhelmed and needed somehow to make sense of the moment and writing is a way for me of making sense of the world).
No, I don’t love it when you say “you’ll use that in a poem,” although I love it when you say something so weird and compelling that it makes me want to write a poem. I was pretty angry with you for saying, during my miscarriage several year ago, “you’ll put this in a poem,” and I explicitly put that anger in my poem, “Welcome to the Blighted Ovum Support Group.” Of course, you were right. I did put many of those moments in the poem (including you saying “you’ll put this in a poem”), but somehow I didn’t want the idea of a future poem to be a comfort to me at that time. I didn’t want to use that experience. I didn’t want to “profit” from it, to be assuaged by it. I come back, thinking about this, to the image of buds or blossoms breaking through bark. I think the desire in “usage” is to resist, not just vulnerability, but the process by which something beautiful comes out of something unbeautiful, the transformation of the difficult and real into the beautiful or exemplary. One recurring desire I had when writing the poems that eventually became The Pedestrians was how to make something important and dense and resonant that resisted the poetification of my experience. How to make poetry without my poetic habits and “tricks.”
Husband: We sometimes talk about how I’m only interested in content and never form. You’re more balanced, but you go through stages when you’re only interested in form and not content. And you know I’m not just talking about discussions of literature—somehow this becomes a communication problem for us when talking about a full range of subjects: groceries, whether you should volunteer as a soccer referee, how to talk to our kids about pornography. But, keen observer, I noticed that the Fables poems are written in… prose. And here comes the question: Is this decision to write in prose more about you turning away from the concerns of form towards content, or are you being sneaky here? Fables confidently assert truths; they’re like an exaggerated version of prose narrative in that they are even more truth-asserting than the most manipulative story. The details of the story work towards the expression of a final truth, a moral. This manipulation, akin to the way a false story can co-opt truth and replace the reality of experience, is the kind of manipulation that your earlier work wrestles with and against. Or, are Fables actually less manipulative because they’re more open about their project of truth assertion? Rachel, are you switching teams? Or are you trying to do some kind of reverse psychology trick on your audience? Like, “see, see what stories do?” Or are Fables somehow more honest than narrative fiction because they don’t pretend not to be moral-making?
Poet-wife: Whoah. Ok. I need to break that down, smart guy. So, as you know, The Pedestrians and Fables are separate books published together. I think the two books work well together and have overlapping concerns (content), and I really like the way that the mixed forms of The Pedestrians and the prose of Fables comment on one another (form). Originally I imagined that Fables would be published separately and would be received, very simply, as prose (not prose poems, just prose). I wanted to write prose for several reasons including that I had not written prose like this before and because I was frustrated with poetry (more on that in a minute). But, even when writing prose, I am a poet by nature and by practice and have never seemed able to escape my preoccupation with form.
We were in Southern Maine a few summers ago and were taking about 25 children’s books a week out of the local library and reading them to our youngest son. I often chose books by their size (form), and I picked up a book of fables because it was small and unusual-looking. I’d never liked fables. I don’t understand animals, and I find the moralistic, reductive quality of the traditional fable almost repellent. Meanwhile, I had a new notebook I wanted to use that had empty squares on each page. I decided to write “morals” in the squares—traditional morals from traditional fables—but have the text leading up to those morals be memoiristic vignettes that were only tangentially related to these morals. Originally my fables had boxed morals on every page but later I took those out. So, even though the prose pieces in Fables don’t have line breaks, they were born out of a formal concern. I was experimenting with telling the story of my life (the same old material) in the corrupted version or form or structure of a fable.
Many of the poems in The Pedestrians also look like prose (and have no line breaks) and one could argue that some of them are not poems at all. Originally all the poems in The Pedestrians were written in prose blocks. I was, as I said, trying to resist the beauty and spaciousness of poetry, the lushness, the transformativeness, the artifice, the trickery. It felt to me that there was too much beauty and relief (forgiveness?) in the line break and I didn’t want to allow myself that luxury. But, when I had a whole book full of these poems they were so relentless I felt they were unreadable. I had to go back and put line breaks in rather than punish the reader. In truth, there were line breaks but I just wasn’t showing them to the reader. In the process of relineating some of the poems I discovered that there were a few different types of poems I was writing. Making these forms more visually distinctive was very helpful to me in revising and ordering them.
I haven’t even begun to answer the part of your question about truth and honesty and the relationship between the different parts of The Pedestrians (and the fables) to truth/honesty or truth to various forms and genres or my thoughts and feelings about the relationship between stories and poems and truth. I’m obsessed with this question. I suppose I always have been but now it’s an idée fixe. It’s all over The Pedestrians and inescapable in my other upcoming book, MOTHERs.
One summer they decided to take their children to a far away city that was completely unlike the city in which they lived.
Everything was very expensive and no one smiled unless it was absolutely necessary. The buildings were grandiloquent and everywhere remnants of the defunct aristocracy glimmered behind the scrim of joie de vivre. The denizens of this city loved food and clothing even more than the denizens of their own city loved food and clothing and this seemed a superior and enlightened way of living.
“Yes,” she thought, through a haze of jetlag, “There should be no limits placed on the value of a very fine cheese.”
But soon the gluttonous monotony of ordering the perfect food at the most au courant restaurant very late at night amongst slim metropolitans who smoked while casually wearing unnecessary scarves—this civilized existence—began to seem obsessively consumptionistic, and she began to wish that the devoted patrons of le meilleur boulangerie would go home and eat less-than-sublime bread or imperfectly cooked rice, go to sleep early, and have regular dreams.
Day after day she dragged the children from sight to sight and night after night lay in bed with the husband and thought about how, despite the many carousels and the verveine tea and the peaches that tasted like peaches (and would forever ruin the tasteless peaches available in the city that was her city), this city was more like her city than any other place on earth. She knew then that the patriotism her children were developing as a result of this voyage, a patriotism borne out their hatred for long tours of national monuments and their hatred for the unexpectedly barbarous native children and for the native adults who hated children especially the children of foreigners—this patriotism was false. It was false and artificiel not because their feelings were unfounded but because the whole notion of dissimilitude was illusory.
She lay next to the snoring husband in the sublet bed that had a different-sized mattress than was made in the city that was her city and realized that though the bedroom smelled like smoke and the wooden floors of the bathroom smelled like her three sons’ urine (and why anyone would use wood rather than tile or stone or linoleum or something easily washable for a bathroom floor was beyond her)—she realized that this city, so unlike her city, was exactly like her city and that everyone in her city was exactly like everyone in this city and that they were all animals and that animals can only be animals.
Many days passed. Many nights. The same number of days and nights. They slept in the smoke-drenched bed or rather the husband snored and sputtered and she lay awake and unseeing under her chilled eye mask. They tried keeping the long windows closed. It was quieter then but stuffy. Nothing they did seemed to quell the smell of cigarettes that neither of them smoked.
She wanted to believe that she could write the way some women sat knitting. She wanted to make something out of peacefulness but worried that peacefulness was antithetical to makefulness.
“Play,” her friend said over the phone.
She asked the computer for a tarot reading and the computer told her staves and pentacles: rest, happiness, joy, stability.
“Idle hands,” she thought, but there was no one there to argue with.
She laid her hands palms up in her lap and waited.
One day she tied a $10 bill around the thin, braided trunk of a small money tree she’d bought at the farmer’s market. The tree was scrawny and asymmetrical and was the only money tree the seller had. She’d made a joke about the poor economy and scarcity of money trees, but the plant man said, “Want it?” without smiling.
Sometimes when a breeze rustled the tear-shaped leaves they sounded like pages turning. Once she sat in a chair near the little plant, holding a book, waiting for the breeze. She wanted to turn the pages of her book and compare the sounds, but it was a still day and she lost patience with the experiment.
Today My Son Told Me
once long ago everything
grew everywhere all over
the planet people ate things
what later became known as
they started to notice
things grew in certain places
where they’d dropped
what later became known as
that’s called cultivation
my son explained
& used the word
he said Crops changed everything
hominids could stay in one place
and fence animals
this was the birth of culture
people didn’t need to
gather & hunt all day
so they developed language
& the ability
to kill everything
the body in health feels
so little pleasure
go away world
go away world disasters
I shake the frail vernacular
each week less
and fewer words
the self stripped
to the slender trembling I
I hold babies
against a tsunami get
away Great Mother
who art so
you keep me
marred and lonesome
the sun pushes me
deeper into the earth
in their nests trees
sway in the tepid
wind I am
all bark no bud
can break through
– – –
an airplane stitches
the gray sky there
not-there there the city’s
through me Carl Jung
lost his mind looking for
his soul I’d run at you
with readied spear but
the spears are rungs
in a metal fence spiked
against settling birds
my mind is made up
of you what would you
have of me?
Rachel Zucker is the author of several poetry collections, including Museum of Accidents (2009), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and named one of the best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly; The Last Clear Narrative (2004); and Eating in the Underworld (2003).Her memoir, MOTHERs, was just released by Counterpath press. Her newest book, The Pedestrians, will be released by Wave this April. With poet Arielle Greenberg, Zucker has co-edited the anthologies Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (2008) and Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days (2010). Greenberg and Zucker also co-wrote Home/Birth: A Poemic (2011). Zucker’s work has been included in the anthologies Not For Mothers Only (2007) and Best American Poetry (2001).Zucker’s honors include the Salt Hill Poetry Award, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the Center for Book Arts Award, and Prairie Schooner’s Strousse Award. She has taught at Fordham University and New York University.