Rachel Zucker covers scenes from her interior life and city landscapes from Paris to New York in her newest collection, the pedestrians. I’ve been a big fan of Zucker’s work since her first book, Eating in the Underworld, and continuing through The Bad Wife Handbook, which I thought was pleasantly provocative in its treatment of the expectations of women in the arenas of art, marriage and family life. This book feels like an extension of her previous books, with more emphasis on the importance of home, city, and place.
This book is really two chapbook-like collections combined, starting with “fables,” a section of prose pieces written in the third person, and ending with the longer section of first-person poems in “the pedestrians.” It’s an interesting way to split a book of poetry, into a half-prose, half-verse meditation on similar themes, creating a hybrid-genre chimera. Zucker’s work in previous books reveals a lively, intelligent and occasionally hilarious mind, and the same can be said of the work in this book.
I do wish her “fables” section opened up archetypally as promised by the title (silly me, looking for any sign of actual fables), which might allow Zucker to digress and make her own story more universal by including stories outside her own life – but it stays in the same autobiographical and tonal range as “pedestrians,” though it adds a bit of distance by writing in the third person. My favorite moments in “fables” are those of startling intimacy within the delicate confines of marriage. From “ocean:”
“Feel how hard I am,” the husband said, putting aside the pornographic novel.
“Huh?” she said, not moving or looking up at him from the novel she was reading a novel about a man building a machine to bring his beloved brother back from the dead.
If she’s retreading some of the ground she covered in The Bad Wives Handbook (the power struggles of marriage and motherhood, the difficulty of being an artist and considered a “good wife/mother”) she does it with humor and sometimes painful levels of honesty and detail. Lorin Stein of The Paris Review called her title poem, “The Pedestrians,” “bravely whiny,” and while that might seem a bit contradictory, it’s a pronouncement that could speak to the whole book. Where this book does explore new ground is when it provides a kind of meditation on place: how places affect our writing and our lives, how the language and props of a new city or a home town may or may not impact us.
Though Zucker’s intention may be breaking feminist ground by speaking the truth about her life, the hard part perhaps for the reader (and admittedly, this reviewer) is feeling sympathy for the problems of someone with a supportive husband, healthy, happy kids, trips to Paris while living the artistic life in the most expensive city in America, in a cool neighborhood, who is complaining about everything the whole time. A little one-percent-ish? A bit tone-deaf for a time when a lot of people can’t afford a trip across town, much less across continents? Maybe. Or maybe my pro-proletariat, working-class-identified roots are showing. But I still had fun reading the book, and you probably will too; it’s like going for coffee with that friend with the amazing life who complains about her hair the whole time. You roll your eyes but you can’t wait to meet up with her again.
One of the things Zucker does really well in the pedestrians is the internal monologue/slice of (a rarified) life, and the title poem, “pedestrian,” allows the reader insight into Zucker: her city, her anxieties, her family, in a kind of manic slurry:
don’t want to go to the well-reviewed movie…
or buy anything in any superb boutique
except a slightly elliptical stoneware sugar bowl…
I don’t want to have coffee or not have coffee
or listen to This American Life on infidelity
which makes me tired b/c I don’t want to have sex w/
anyone just want my dear husband to
read me Game of Thrones by George RR Martin
while I lie in bed with a buckwheat eye pillow
are you scandalized by my admission of love
for genre fiction?
Her voice in this persona is charming but peevish, uncertain and unsatisfied by her choices and desires.
Zucker’s stylistic choices here, to dance between prose and poem, between family vacations and the squabbles of everyday life, between the pedestrian and the city she lives in, are compelling and worth examining closely. Her confessional voice is arresting in a time when the mode for vague, unknowable speakers and mysterious narrative dominates; you can’t help but be drawn in by her personal asides, the surprising exactness of her language of argument and resentment and ennui, and the chance to catch one of her sideways jokes.