Make the Words an Elsewhere: Magdalena Zurawski’s The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom

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The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom is an ongoing battle between the liberation of poetry and the captivity of language, examining how the aim for such freedom can drop you into the trenches of the language that keeps us prisoner. Zurawski’s book-length ars poetica sees language as a sentencing and looks for poetry to be “an elsewhere,” the space beyond that one can transcend to. She writes in “The Remainders,”

and so on I spoke until finally the words released me
into Virgil and had me thrice utter

                       verse breaks the ground
                       verse breaks the ground
                       verse breaks the ground

The omission of punctuation in most of these poems is a gesture in itself that offers a way out of the formal shackles of poetry. It is not enough for language to be something playful, for it is language itself that is the captor; expressing a feeling is a strikingly different experience from that of word play. In an interview with Paul Semel, Zurawski wrote, “I begin a poem because I feel like making something out of words. I don’t really have deep thoughts or feelings anymore. I just want to have words with me. I want to have words to play with at my desk in the morning.” One such model, “Innocence Isn’t What Appears” renders this preoccupation:

I used to ground my need by falling down an etymology
             I stood upon infirm because nothing
in sight was vision or appeared real

                        a thing that felt
hidden rose always before me clouded this world remained then simple illegible

              and maybe phantasm
is a room Dante keeps open in the head    embalmed a word there in stone sensation

a grasped idea to
keep moving in time

              or there is no real

Zurawski’s philosophy takes on a system of writing techniques that allows her exposure to something far beyond her own thoughts. She uses the words of others as some might use a set of rules, a deadline, or assignment—allowing these limitations to activate intuition and welcome a sense of the unknown. “I usually look for piles of words somewhere else to make things out of,” she told Semel, even referring to a book of Jim Brodey poems that she uses for erasures as an “active Ouija board.” She also uses recordings of poets’ readings while writing as a way to wild her poetry—”for their words to interfere with my own thoughts and vice versa.” In “Both Rapid and Not Rapid,” she writes, “you knew / something could beautifully erupt inside you and interrupt this doubt.” The doubt being that of banal meditative writing. Her play with erasure and writing while listening to other poets read is like something out of the New York School, like that collaboration with chaos found in Pollock’s action paintings and the whole “gestural abstraction” of the movement. In “High Mist Toward Noon,” Zurawski opens up to the vast space that lies beyond language and transcends the body of being: “The down on an arm can, however, on occasion, stand on end / as if your skin sensed an open field behind the bursting silence.” Some such lines are direct in capturing emotional sensations, while others rely wholly on abstraction:

Like all spirits I’m now under corporate contract and
in uniform, but ignore the red tape. Focus on my forehead. Unload everything
                 into the worry lines of eternity. And here,
                 at my mouth, though the color passes for sand, there’s
                 a basin in which to unload the past, a space I’ve masked
                 as a haul of disintegrating twigs porous to the touch.

What Zurawski has done here, in her second collection of poetry, is combine form (or lack thereof) with word economy—but not in the form of concision. There is an overarching conversation happening here about the cost of language and poetry’s exchange rate:

           all the world is an animal a good
businessman is a zookeeper
you learned this in school
poetry however is something else

What is she telling us that poetry does? “It carries you through a wall / it knows just what you mean.” The opening poem, “Of Liberation,” heralds the notion that language is a place—though whether an interior or an exterior, we have yet to find out:

You arrive in a sentence
where you would like
to stay, but you are told

to move on to another,
so you do and wish only
this time to keep to imaginary


But here, even on this early page, language is a place you cannot reside, let alone be sentenced to. The poem ends with Zurawski quoting a professor saying, “To be in a sentence is by nature to be passing through.” It is not until the meta-poem, “The Problem,” that we get the notion that we are being kept in by something:

The problem — there was no longer a natural way to write. My hands,
             the musculature of my hand, could no longer speed the pen to my thoughts.
I had worked too long on the machines.

             Instead, I wrote in thought at the edge of sleep,
             so that my best poems disappeared just as I began to dream. I know I was their only
audience, but I am sure they were my best work. If only I knew how to retrieve them, knew
where they were stored.

With the idea of restraint comes the allusion of punishment, a sentencing, confinement, but still she hopes, in the last line of “Roneo Room Triptych,” to find transcendence through the very language that keeps her, “A poet is a frame not a beauty in a window. Do you see me waving?”

Embodying the human who makes the poet possible who then draws attention to poetry’s philosophical place in the universe, Zurawski corners this existentialism in “The Remainders,” a seven-page poem reminiscent of Alice Notley’s “The Prophet.” The centerpiece is populated by animals and zookeepers, businessmen and soldiers. She observes, “There’s something in a word that remains outside / watches the hounds break up the fox” and we recognize that poetry is neither the fox nor the house, and neither is the speaker. She is the advocate for the open exterior of poetry:

Soldier, care for the O in the poem
and take on light
become astral

but my flesh, Sir,
remains here, I said, I am
so reasonable it leaves me
a failed escape

“The Remainders” is the manifesto of The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom, and Zurawski is the loudspeaker that shouts loudly into seemingly dystopian times: “I command you to make the words / an elsewhere.”

Kylie Gellatly is a poet living in Northern Vermont and a Frances Perkins Scholar at Mount Holyoke College. Her book reviews and interviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Green Mountains Review, and Pleiades. She is the Editorial Assistant for Green Mountains Review, as well as a poetry reader for Pleiades and Anhinga Press. Kylie has been awarded the Factory Hollow Press Scholarship to the Juniper Writing Institute, two fellowships to the Vermont Studio Center, and is participant in Tupelo Press’ 30/30 Project. More from this author →