“Inch of ocean, pinch of face”

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Zach Savich’s first book Full Catastrophe Living, will remind readers that the etymology of “catastrophe,” from Greek, means overturning or sudden turn. At their strongest, these poems do that best. At their weakest, they move toward a sense of aloofness, irony, and trendy disassembly. Using several modes of expressive language, blank space, and occasionally more traditional sonnets, the poems do not address questions, describe subjects, or even make metaphors move; they are about kneading language to show the motions of a mind.

Savich employs several interesting rhetorical devices to do this, and some that left me disinterested. My favorite poem, “Poem for My Wife if We are Married,” comes late in the book, when the trajectory has allowed a textured, pastiche-like pattern of a consciousness, a thinking voice, to become more vulnerable and less gauzy. In four long sections, the poem is at once intimate and expressive; it shares quietude with a Whitman-like pronouncement of rubbing up against the reader. Especially in its Cubist use of pronouns, where multiple figures emerge from the first-person, the poem shows the subversive qualities of love:

They shone along the sidewalks when
I reached toward them. A salmon, one knows, is made of
Solitudes that would leap like that, not only to speak a known
Note but to prove notes multiple in instruments—like that


Now, they are mad
To have the bits of movie on their skin. Part of a car chase,
Inch of ocean, pinch of face. On his cousin’s throat
like a bow. A crisp flake on his tongue (did I catch one?)
Where the film slips through—having opened his shirt,
He touches his chest. Here, and here, and here.

Later, the poem alludes to Thomas Lux, Wordsworth, and W.S. Merwin, so it is as much about turning to writing as it is making the language turn. Some of the methods to arrive at mashing the language in order to seek surprise are a kind of word golf, changing words to other sound-alike referents as a way to avoid traditional rhyme: “I can never say fervent without / hearing furtive” (“Movie”); “That the valved / values” (“Storefront”); “White trim / skinnings” (“Real Estate”); “Smoke / is a smock. Clams, clamps” (View from Above and Below”). However, because rhyme is neither ornamentation nor an academic exercise, but is a tool bound to the sense of a poem, this strategy is not always successful; it frequently manifests as hysterical in the context of poems that wink at the reader in the first place.

For example, “Then…” is a place where I think the postmodern de-personalization takes on the affectations of Surrealism, without being revolutionary: “Then I was as happy / as a hot air balloon / in a ham sandwich. / Healing thinned me. / I no longer scuffed / steps’ rubber no-trip / strips. I chose regret / again. Again again.” In January 1925, Antonin Artaud, André Breton, Robsert Desnos, Raymond Queneau, Max Ernst, and the other Surrealists declared their movement to “hurl this formal warning to Society: Beware of your deviations and faux-pas, we shall not miss a single one.” Some of these poems are enamored of deviation and faux-pas, as a place to arrive to after the exasperating slalom meant to create surprise.

“Then…” uses short lines, quick pacing, and a deliberately alienated speaker who is meant to have such authority that the reader is bullied or cowed into agreement. I don’t experience such poems (“a spritz Then igloo eyes. / Asshole eyes! Each inch, an itch.”) as ethical uses of language, but as dishonest appropriations of those revolutionary Surrealist principles. Similarly, the sonnets interspersed throughout Full Catastrophe Living do not use form to ask political or romantic questions, or to make a responsive voice arise in the verso between the octave and sestet; they offer a sensation that they were made into sonnets ex post facto.

Savich’s short poems, however, are steady and profound; in their own nonce form, they create tension in ways white space interact with the pensive language that would otherwise be static, as in “Winter Orange”:

the sun harbors
every tatter in
its assimilating
hair down a back’s
when not taken advantage of
as though one’s practice
is in question

Like Vermeer’s “Girl Asleep at a Table,” the image of the winter orange suggests a phantasmagorical pull (“the sun harbors every tatter”), geometrical wholeness and motion (“hair down a back’s pole” versus the round fruit), as well as sexual power (“when not taken advantage of”); together all are deployed to keep the practice of poetry (“in question”) at a distance as the eye is channeled up through the beginning (“unblithe”). The reader’s interest, particularly because of the short lines and quick turns, is solicited even as it is deflected. Savich’s other poems that use this form have a similar affect, as in “Sidewalk Sale”:

As far as things
handling themselves,
as a figure
of speaking tends
to the transitional
among others,
as ache more
than ever
so that sexual
hunger, we have been told,
will increase

Like the razor-edged minimalism of Robert Creeley, the rich ontology of these poems, where the content and form eloquently match, communicates carefully into the reader’s memory. Suggestions that romantic love is a sensation provided by electrical impulses in the brain, and how that play with “reality” is addressed most provocatively by these small, frame-like jewels. Generally, the longer, more obese statements with few or no stanzas and rapid line breaks do this in an angular, though ultimately inert and appalling way (“Fool”).

It can be difficult to maintain energy and a passionate syntax over very long lines, especially in the lyric mode that doesn’t require the setting and staging of narrative to assert emotional resonance; here Savich is most profound and adept at the short line, where he is masterful at using space and enjambment to bend sense and sound. In contrast, his denser, even claustrophobic longer forms (“Don Quixote”) abhor structural concerns and favor witticism to the point of incoherence.

Full Catastrophe Living embraces hybridity: of thought, of content, and of form. Its uncertainty is its strength, because its voice remains open to fluent, or fluid moods. Sometimes the voice demands to be taken seriously even though they highly regard slapstick. Frustrated that “near its peak, the mountain requires nearly no / effort to climb,” (“On a Pose of Virgil’s”) the poems devalue the power of metaphor. The book contains well-made, thoughtful, sometimes pleasurable poems; though it also contains immature, or forgettable motions toward self-absorption. Even those uneven moments can be meaningful, however. Savich was apparently influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s texts on Buddhist mindfulness, but there is a certain lack of strategy, of toughness, and of rigor that Kabat-Zinn’s anecdotes have not relayed to some of these koans.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →