What We Hack Up We Can Choke Down

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It is Zweig’s essential Vermont-y-ness that makes her indispensable. The charm and beauty of those green mountains and isolation and mud seasons of that terrain is applied thickly in these poems.

Martha Zweig is a completely underrated poet and her latest book, Monkey Lightning, shows her strange, oblique, knotty originality; her poems are dark, amusing, and sometimes riveting. Though difficult, these poems serve as a tonic to the doughy need for narrative poems to succumb to literalness, or the lyric poem’s soft avant-garde, which can be pretty, but nonsensical.

Zweig shows skill in combining her insouciance with traditional prosody—ghazals, villanelles, sonnets, and a variety of set-structured nonce forms abound in Monkey Lightning. Her powers more often are expressed through their quick turns and sheer audacity. The blurb on the cover by Heather McHugh describes Zweig as a hybrid of Flannery O’Connor and Gerard Manley Hopkins. She embodies maybe some Hopkins, without the religiosity, but most of Zweig’s work feels like a spacey (in the loopy sense, not the sense of white space) and nightmarish version of Robert Frost. It is Zweig’s essential Vermont-y-ness that makes her indispensable. The charm and beauty of those green mountains and isolation and mud seasons of that terrain is applied thickly in these poems.

Swirling enjambments and thorny slaloms of syntax are a key feature. The final quatrain of the villanelle “Facetious,” for example, shows the dry humor and textured consonants characteristic of Zweig’s work: “Six kisses left, of life? Blow five!—benign / dispensation somebody else can use: / don’t begrudge yours, I didn’t begrudge mine. / Pointless love makes the world flutter & shine.” The love is simultaneously pointless and vital. The use of an ampersand between “flutter” and “shine” gives a shorter beat, and adds an extra nudge of lyricism to counter the form’s Gallic stodginess. Elsewhere, Zweig adds her own homespun vigor to the impulse from Hopkins (or even Rilke) to illustrate her points, as in “Tomato Aspic Elegy”: “O love— / apple, flesh the sun / starts on the vine, ripen to this: / what we can hack up we can choke down, thus— / dollop of mayonnaise, dazzle of good silver, the slightly / smeared lettuce leaf one leaves.” These sorts of lines convey whimsy on one hand, and a deadly particular sadness, on the other.

Many poems that would use such techniques might be best suited to content of an urban environment (think of Hart Crane). Monkey Lightning, however, contains poems exclusively in a rural domain. Almost entirely depopulated of humans, these poems nonetheless contain a variety of dogs, foxes, fish, bunnies, bees, whales, loons, and so on. These all serve to heighten not necessarily communion with nature, like a Transcendentalist might, but to exemplify nature’s cold, unknowing brutality. In “We May All Know” she tells us that “Fishes as well have deaths. / In the lake shallows scores / of alewives bob, bent sideways; / quarter-inch fur of rot, cocoon / all over works each inside out.” Here, by subtle use of mixed nouns (fur, cocoon, lake) she tries to show the unity among all things even as she expresses a lament for their general dissipation.

Sometimes, too, in these poems, the balance the poet has struck between humor and a bluesy despair tends to backfire, leaving the reader antsy because of unfulfilled expectations. In “Punctual,” there is an outlandish way the fairy tale-like entrance into nature becomes a gloss on the kind of wisdom seen elsewhere in the book: “Springtime in the apple trees, boing boing twig / blossom to twig the bumblebee goes, but I put up with more than a little / too much sweetness already from last fall. Yuck, love!” I am embarrassed to read those lines aloud, yet alone try to write them. Other times, the balance is tilted in the other direction, and the poem gives the sensation of a completed statement, as in “Brainwash”: “I justify myself: a signal / switch set, a rigged trinket, their ship apart, / their vanishing act, a vandal, puff of the hordes, / the no idea never to cross their / minds unbidden, seamless arctic.” Note the long sentence, curving like a frozen stream, through the stones.

Zweig in these instances does for Vermont what Joe Bolton did for Florida or Frank Stanford did for Arkansas. There is a spooky, labyrinthine strangeness, both in form and content, that makes Zweig instantly recognizable. Despite this individualism, the book is too long, at 83 pages. Though that number is within the range of an average poetry book, after dozens of dense, finely wrought, even frantic poems, it would have served both Zweig and the reader better had the editor cut-out a quarter of the weakest poems.

Another point of contention is a problem with the way the book has been marketed. The biographical note on the book cover is much too long and reads like Zweig has died and this is a paid death notice in the local paper. I admire everything she’s done: her work in unions, her passion for restorative justice, and so on, but her life story gives the impression that either this is her final book, or they are fishing for compliments. The work, in other words, speaks for itself. The “To Market To Market Jiggety-Jig” aspect of American poetry creates the need for this kind of bio note on a perfectly good book of poems. A note like this intends to place Zweig in a context—though there is little or no agreement about styles and schools of poetry—with others of her generation, and to show that Tupelo Press publishes a master of that generation. It is my opinion, though, that the poems themselves are the evidence of this; all else is ornamentation and can only make our trade even more theatrical than it already is.

In Zweig’s poems “Inhumane,” she tells us that “Monkey lightning cranks / down the rungs of the usual dark / night of the soul.” That just about says it. Monkey Lightning is a first-rate book of poems. Its difficulty demonstrates the need for difficult poems containing fresh uses of language; these will mirror the difficulty and freshness of our workaday lives.

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 →