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Book Review: Fjords vol. I by Zachary Schomburg

April 19, 2012

Like teeth, perhaps meaning should be considered an inalienable possession. Teeth are considered such because a sentence like “I have some missing teeth” sounds perfectly idiomatic, even though the speaker has something that’s missing. Compare this to a sentence like “I have a missing five-dollar bill,” which sounds a bit odd to most native English speakers. Thus it is with beautiful things – we know they possess meaning, even if it seems to be lost. From “The Wild Meaninglessness:”

The people here have all fallen in love with their own meaninglessness. But I’m not sure what that means. I mean, what else can we do but mean? Just the other day, for example, we threw strawberries from the roof at birds. We can’t help it. I mean, we can’t help anything at all.

So maybe we must swallow these poems without chewing. They are (already) tessellations of memory, fantasy, and fear that re-discover the missing beauty of the quotidian. Schomburg’s work differs from that of other surreal narrative prose-poets by the frequently didactic tone. He both assigns us dreams and instructs us on how to interpret them.  From “The Animal Spell:”

Someone once told me that animals are people under spells, and if you fall in love with them the spell will be lifted. I recently fell in love with a black trumpeter swan.

The truth is there is no such thing as spells. The world is always as it seems. And love is just our own kind voice that we whisper into our own blood.

Personally, I can’t hear about a black swan without understanding it as a symbol of something that could not have been anticipated. There are several such recurring images of considerable symbolic cache in our culture. Water is the nothingness that separates being and being. In particular, fjords are cliffs where land meets water; fjords are the places where we fall into nothingness; fjords are where we get our dying from. Wordsworth tried to assure us that we can always return to the shore. Stevens, that “all the world is a shore.” Schomburg seems to be adding “until it’s a cliff.”

Then there is the red balloon, which makes me think of Albert Lamorisse’s wonderful film “Le Ballon Rouge.” Perhaps it represents one’s youthful vitality, one’s strength and will in solitude, which we futilely try to share with those we love:

This is how you love: you try over and over again to throw a red balloon across the river from a tree.

When, then, three poems later I read the line “there is so much blood in the trees” I must think of this poem by Emily Dickinson. Perhaps it is the still point at the center of Schomburg’s turning imagination:

You’ve seen Balloons set — Haven’t You?
So stately they ascend —
It is as Swans — discarded You,
For Duties Diamond —

Their Liquid Feet go softly out
Upon a Sea of Blonde —
They spurn the Air, as t’were too mean
For Creatures so renowned —

Their Ribbons just beyond the eye —
They struggle — some — for Breath —
And yet the Crowd applaud, below —
They would not encore — Death —

The Gilded Creature strains — and spins —
Trips frantic in a Tree —
Tears open her imperial Veins —
And tumbles in the Sea —

The Crowd — retire with an Oath —
The Dust in Streets — go down —
And Clerks in Counting Rooms
Observe — “‘Twas only a Balloon” —

The imagery of Schomburg is densely but fluidly inter-connected. Swans become strawberries become red balloons become red rooms openning up to a field of dying swans. This a world where we live lonely lives on islands until we reach a cliff and then “nothing else happens.”

Even if we find a pony that can carry us over the river to new ground, somehow we are disappointed. From “Testy Pony:”

But the testy pony rears and approaches the river with unfettered bravery. Its leap is glorious. It clears the river with ease, not even getting its pony hooves wet. And then there we are on the other side of the river, the sun going down, the pony circling, looking for something to eat in the dirt. Real trust is to do so in the clear face of doubt, and to trust is to love. This is my failure, and for this I cannot be forgiven.

And this is why, personally, I like trees better than oceans. Islands, after all, are just the leaves of some giant underwater tree. The ocean is the process of branching. And this is why Zachary Schomburg’s poetry is so moving: It is written at the place where the branches come together. Language is a body yearning to reach past itself. And these poems succeed in doing so. They discover commonality in an age when that is an increasingly difficult task.They are able to do so because we all have dreams, and Schomburg knows how to make sense of them.

Fjords, vol I is Zachary Schomburg’s third book of poems, following The Man Suit and Scary, No Scary. It has been published by the most excellent Black Ocean Press. I encourage you to support your own imagination by purchasing a subscription to their books.

  1. I can’t wait to read it, excellent critique of an excellent writer’s work.

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