A Gadabout Eye

Reviewed By

Like a firestorm and the weather it creates, the poems in this collection occur in an amorphous space where the forms—and the elements with which Savich fills them—are constantly changing.

With his two most recent books of poetry—2010’s Annulments and this year’s The Firestorm—Zach Savich has shown himself a rare talent at titling his collections. Annulments reached its zenith with “The Mountains Overhead,” an ambitious poem in which the dissolution of a love affair is realized through a sequence of fragments that break off and end before we have a chance to come to grips with their meaning. What worked so well about Annulments was the way its title allowed the poems to inhabit the word’s various definitions: the legal invalidation of a marriage, the psychoanalytic process in which pain is abolished from the mind, and the late fifteenth century sense of the word as an “act of reducing to nothing.”

In The Firestorm, Savich has located a title that not only stitches together five otherwise disparate sequences, but allows the poems to interweave and grow into their title. As he points out in the book’s first poem, “Pyrocumulous,” “the firestorm constructs its own weather,” its own atmosphere, “so the demand is less / expression of a soul than to locate where it is left.” Like a firestorm and the weather it creates, the poems in this collection occur in an amorphous space where the forms—and the elements with which Savich fills them—are constantly changing. For Savich, the firestorm is the natural phenomenon that most resembles the instability and magnitude of the imagination: both are located in ethereal spaces, and both are defined by the conflagration of elements, forms, and language that occupy them.

As was the case with Annulments, Savich writes his most disarming poetry when he uses a restrained intimacy to communicate solitude, estrangement, and longing. He holds himself back, if only slightly, to create a distance across which intimacy must travel. “On the bus,” he writes, “a woman with a voice / so palpable, soothed / no one minds her on the phone / she doesn’t know if there will / be time for dinner before the film.” When observation and description won’t reach far enough, Savich speaks to us directly, offering forth an aphorism: “When you live alone, all the pears go ripe at once.” Here, intimacy is enacted through absence—we understand that Savich must live alone, without us, without anyone, in order to arrive at the declaration he shares with us. This displaced “you” is where Savich finds the most fuel. Though he identifies this pronoun as a woman, she’s a woman who remains a presence to us in the supernatural sense of the word: we neither see nor hear her. What we see is Savich seeing her, what we hear is Savich hearing her, as when he writes “of desire you said what made you / a wolf has now made you a woman.” Savich repeats the words “made you” in order to propel our imaginations across the distance he’s created between woman and wolf. We may neither see nor hear Savich’s “you,” but we feel her presence change in the imaginative transition that occurs.

Imagination being one result of what we experience on a sensory level, it follows that Savich’s art takes such an interest in the ways our imaginations assign meaning to what we do and do not see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. The Firestorm’s most challenging and arresting sequence—titled “Ardoretum,” after the word “my grandmother always mispronounced / beautifully”—finds Savich provoking our imaginations by deconstructing the values we give to our sensory experiences. In these passages, from two different poems, Savich delineates how sight and sound inform the meanings we appoint them:

                In the silent film, we measure the volume
of a flowerpot’s crash by how many pieces it breaks into.
We measure the volume of a lion’s roar
by how fast the villagers run. And if the villagers continue
to process dyes in their earthen bowls? The lion
is silent or internal

[…]

A man falls and laughs; we assume: unhurt.
A man falls and another laughs; he can’t be that hurt.

[…]

                                        Horse the color of its field.
Field the color of its blossoms. So let the blossoms come
before the horse. Let the blossoms come before the field.

What’s impressive is the range of modes these passages inhabit: they are as much freestanding images as they are theories of looking; they are as much theories of looking as they are riddles and exercises in perception.

And Savich’s eye is a gadabout eye if ever there was one. In “The Eye Will Not Settle,” our focus shifts in the style of the ophthalmological term known as the saccade : small, jerky movements that change focus from one point to another. This is a commonplace of contemporary American poetry, yes, but Savich alters his lines and his delivery in response to the array of stimuli the eye absorbs:

The Eye Will Not Settle

This morning, I put a letter in the blue mailbox,
then opened the lid again not to make sure
the letter went down but hoping a reply was already.
I’ve bound the letters so they read only dear love
dear love dear love. In your mixtape, I heard
the room you made your mixtape in. I heard the letters
you were writing. You were staying with your
grandmother, or counting something through a window.
Is my capacity what I should strain toward or is it
inescapable, a limit, as the capacity of a gallon jug
(one gallon) turns anything into a gallon, if not
part of one? Is to be on the verge of x closer to x
or to being on any other verge? A small alley
like the small of a back. Coffee with so much cream
I taste only cream. I open each book to see if I can
imagine myself reading the words I am reading.
I looked at you and saw. I looked at you and saw
something I felt during a moment of personal significance,
for example, traveling. Loving the book you gave me
so much I stop after each page. Isn’t anything
continuously necessarily a landscape? Even listening
is a letter I am writing.

The frenetic turns of voice in this poem are bolstered by the intimacy Savich develops by crossing between thoughts, images, and ways of addressing himself to his audience. A simple narrative anecdote melds into a deconstruction of how one perceives a mailbox. An admission to Savich’s “you” runs head-on into a skittish mathematical question, which itself runs into more freestanding images, more admissions, more questions. This is, in essence, the nature of the firestorm and of Savich’s imagination—this roiling cloud of ever-shifting images, forms, and deliveries is what brings both into being.

A title like The Firestorm, which so powerfully infuses its poems with meaning, can also have its shortcomings if certain of the poems employ this title as a fail-safe. If the poems falter in the book’s third sequence, “To find in imbalance, ballast,” it’s because they run ragged the fragmentary freedoms the book’s title allows. One feels they are almost too indeterminate. They rely on the excellent trope of the firestorm without maintaining the imaginative fever pitch Savich establishes early on. Even when they invite the imagination to challenge itself, the “ballast” poems come off more like exercises in frustration than exercises in perception. Here is the entirety of “Riddle”:

It’s possible to me (and an idea I admit I find menacing and pleasant) that Savich is once again challenging our imaginations by asking us to see something that isn’t there. By titling the poem “Riddle,” he sets us up to expect and look for a solution, but the poem doesn’t offer one. Instead, we assume the burden of trying to locate how the dramatis personae from the poem’s left column figure into the riddle, the act. Ultimately, it appears, they don’t. I want to suggest that Savich is again making a comment on perception. In the same way he used silent film to show us how sight informs the ways we assign meaning, I wonder if Savich isn’t challenging our willingness to believe what we’re told in art. If the poem were titled “Joke,” would you look for a punch line? And what if it were called “Insult”? In this way, “Riddle” becomes a performance. We perform the part of an audience that fails to locate its expectations in a poem whose title creates those expectations.

Like other deceptive natural phenomena—the eye of a hurricane, for instance—certain poems in The Firestorm reveal themselves by what they don’t reveal. Though his work is most challenging and beautiful when he finds a way to embroil language, estrangement, and perception within the same cloud, it’s evident that Savich is a poet who wants us to think as much as he wants us to feel. After five hearty sequences of poems, we’re left with a final line that forces us to reconsider the entire text itself: “My publisher,” he writes, “was the Desert.”


Danniel Schoonebeek's poetry and reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Awl, Publishers Weekly, American Poet, La Fovea, Underwater New York, and Maggy. He was born in the Catskills and may be reached at danniel.schoonebeek@gmail.com. More from this author →