Monday, February 03, 2020

Rachel Zucker, SoundMachine

This is art not a court document, someone reminds me.
Poems are the agency of desire in a world of diverse subjectivities, Laurel says.
Put this in a drawer for at least three months and don’t look at it even more a moment, then revise.
No, says another, Keep going with your noble enterprise of telling the truth in arresting forms. (“PLANET HULK”)

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about who certain books are written for, as I work my way through my current scattering of journal-notes around father health, wife health and the accumulation of discoveries around biological family over the past seven months, and rework what I keep hoping are the final drafts of my post-mother creative non-fiction manuscript, The Last Good Year. Through that lens, I recently discovered this illuminating passage from the essay “IN THE END,” from New York poet and editor Rachel Zucker’s SoundMachine (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2019), as she discusses her late mother, and the book she wrote about her mother:

She had wanted me to know she’d given the book to four friends & described it to a fifth. The first friend had said the book wasn’t true. The friend knew because she’d been there & lived through all of this with us. The second friend said the book could have been great if it had been written differently. The third said I was clearly in a lot of pain. The fourth friend said he almost couldn’t read it because it was unremitting whining without a single redemptive quality.

photo taken, appropriately enough, on my late mother's side-table
The “fallout” of such a work I find interesting. The book she refers to in this passage, of course, is the stunning book-length lyric essay-memoir MOTHERs (Denver CO: Counterpath Press, 2014) [see my review of such here]. SoundMachine is a collection of twenty-five short, pieces, the bulk of which are personal essays, with a poem included as well for, one suspects, comfort. Through the essay “IN THE END,” and SoundMachine as a whole, she explores who writing is actually for, as opposed to who it might be about, as well as its inherent responsibilities, and the comfort and discomfort of what is called “confessional poetry” and “confessional writing.” What does it mean, who is it for, and what are the effects, whether deliberate or accidental? Zucker repeatedly refuses to let herself off the hook, even as she interrogates the confessional and writing the deeply personal in a dazzling array of confessional, and deeply personal, pieces. “It’s not a confessional poem unless it has shame, I said & drew a star on the board, the star of shame.” she writes, as part of a poetry workshop scene in the essay “SEX WITH FAMOUS POET.” This quote, obviously excised from surrounding context, reads, in certain ways, like a particular response or aside in the essay, one of multiple lines in her work that slowly develop into a thread as her essays progress; a thought as it continues to develop, and even contradict. One might say this is thinking in-progress, developing as it unfolds on the page.

Her thoughts on the confessional are numerous, much of it worked through her multiple poetry collections, including Eating in the Underworld (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), The Last Clear Narrative (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), The Bad Wife Handbook (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), Museum of Accidents (Wave Books, 2009) [see my review of such here] and The Pedestrians (Wave Books, 2014) [see my review of such here], and the collaboration, HOME/BIRTH: a poemic (with Arielle Greenberg; 1913 Press, 2010) (she also hosts the brilliant COMMONPLACE podcast, which I highly recommend). Ina 2018 interview with Zucker conducted by Sophie Oliver for The White Review, Oliver writes to close her introduction: “Now nearly 60 episodes in, Commonplace is an incredible archive of contemporary US poetry: from Claudia Rankine to Danez Smith and Anne Waldman, Zucker’s guests discuss their craft and process, and they read their poems. But more compelling even than the frequent insights into the artistic values of leading American poets is what these thoughtful, engaged and articulate people reveal about how they live. In this interview Zucker offers an explanation of why, as a listener, this feels so useful. She also talks about what poetry is for, the female poets of the 1970s she adopted as mentors, and the ‘poetics of motherhood’ that she found in them and that she is still trying to pin down. Her next book, a series of lecture-essays, will include her thoughts – surely expansive and equivocal – on that subject.” The interview opens:

Q THE WHITE REVIEW — What do you think is the role of the poet, and of poetry, right now?

A RACHEL ZUCKER — I’m worried that my answer is going to seem like a total dodge, but I’m going to give it anyway. I want to say that poetry has relevance, that poets have relevance, but I also want to push back against the idea of a role. I think that maybe part of the job of the poet is to undermine or subvert our idea of what a role is, what a job is. There are so many different kinds of poets. There are poets who are doing what someone might consider to be incredibly apolitical, self-indulgent work, and I think in some ways the role of poetry, or my experience with poetry, is to re-examine all of those assumptions, or all of those critiques. There’s a lot of argument particularly around this question of overtly political poetry versus craft, and I’ve heard that put forward over and over again: ‘Well, I want it to be a good poem’, as if a political poem isn’t necessarily a good poem. I feel at this moment that I’m less interested myself in poetry that seems to be apolitical, but as soon as I feel that, I think about… I’m picking a poet I really have not liked, who I feel like it’s quite safe to dislike, Robert Lowell. Through thinking about why I don’t like Lowell, or what annoys me about Lowell, I’ve come to feel I’m so glad Lowell is in poetry. I’m so glad Lowell is part of the conversation when I think about what the role of the poet is. So I think that role is to make us question all our assumptions and all our prescriptions about what poetry is for, who it’s for, what it’s supposed to do, the importance of it, itself. Maybe it’s frivolous, sometimes. I think that we need that, in order to make this disobedient space.

I also don’t know the answer to this other question, which is what’s the role of the poetry critic? I feel like poets have known for a really long time that they didn’t know what their job was, but poetry critics thought they knew what their job was, which was to say whether something was good or bad, or whether something was important. And I think that that relies upon an assigning of roles to the poet, which has changed over time. But if we really knew that poetry was aimed at subverting any notion of role, what would the job of the critic become? And that seems really interesting to me. I think that’s why I’m interested in Commonplace, because I’m really not a critic.

The essay “IN THE END,” specifically, is lyric, thick with the complexities of history, the complexities around both the refuse and comforts of family, of influence, of inheritance. What we are gifted from family, whether we wish for those gifts or not, and how they affect who we are, and become; an essay that might thematically and structurally represent, as much, the collection as a whole. Her concerns throughout the essay echo, further and interrogate her concerns throughout her writing: writing the personal and how far any writer should move through without alienating family and friends, and issues of motherhood, mothers, marriage, poetry, sex and teaching, presented here through the lens of the confessional; what her prior works had utilized instead as structure and approach, and here, more overtly turns the lens against itself. The ease and the openness of her writing is, as always, stunning. In “CONFESSIONAL,” a self-described lecture that speaks of naming through, in part, excising names, she speaks of Anne Sexton being “a very good poet & a very bad mother.” Further on, she adds:

For the record I, too, am a very bad mother. Actually, I am an amazing mother, but all I want to do is work.

This essay, or lecture, or at one point, self-described as “poem,” interrogates and examines her own impulse towards the “confessional,” perhaps giving too much away, including much that might not entirely be hers, thus the requirement for erasing the names of her friends. The important difference, and important discovery, of how she writes and has written to her mother but she does not write for her mother. The realization of who, in fact, she is writing any of this for, or about. The best and most memorable writers work to question inherent structures or deeply-held thinking through their work, and Rachel Zucker is very good at reminding me why she has long been one of my favourite American poets, and one of my favourite American writers. Towards the end of the essay/lecture/poem “CONFESSIONAL,” she writes:

____, who shouted at me because I get everything even the New Yorker & with whom I am & am not writing a book, has ____ sex. She has it a lot & writes about it. I know this because she tells me all about it. Actually she tells me as much as she thinks I can handle, which is not vey much. Also, I just read her new book which was supposed to be about her dead baby but has an awful lot of sex in it none of which is awful. In fact, I just read her poem about a student she had a crush on & how she wondered if her instructions in workshop were a kind of come-on which reminded me of my dream & also of my vow never to write a poem like that again at least not after my meeting which is in only a few hours. From now on I will only write about Mark Ruffalo & Robert Downey Jr. & I will not listen to my friend when she says if I want my needs met maybe I need a new partner so there we are.

Me & my ____ friend & her ____ poems & mine, although this is not a poem.

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