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Book Review: Forge by Jan Zwicky

June 7, 2012

Though it never appears on the page, I read these poems thinking often of the word forage. The pair of words forge and forage in their similarity of sound seem to unveil the dual nature of invention and discovery. And surely these works forged on paper are made with materials foraged from the mind. Here is the first part of the opening poem, “Music and Silence: Seven Variations.” Zwicky does not say “who can name the absence? music,” though delightfully that possibility is projected by the lineation:

Who can name the absence
music is, who draw that space,
the cold breath, sudden and empty
that will own you the rest of your life?

In the still light, you put your feet down,
this own, that one, then this one,
again on the yellow earth. Your happiness
was like the trees’: golden and tattered.

Who could you have told? Leaves
fell around you, half shrug, half sorrow.
And the wind sprang up off the water
riding you, fierce, unbiddable, already lost.

Parent and child are at the park. With gesture, shared attention is brought to a geranium. The parent says “look at the blue flower.” Now, the particular sequence of sounds blue will be flooded with the vibrancy of the sensory and emotional experience. Later, the child learns to read. She reads the word blue. If that word is used haphazardly, I feel something has been stolen from the earlier memory. If the word was first forged as a crown for nature, what can the poet do with it that will justify its use? Create form and music, of course. The building and breaking of patterns that constitutes play, so that reading becomes its own experience with its own vibrancies. And so in the poem “Nojack”, the artificial light from lyric gives a listing of colors their color:

What is it a woman can do for a man,
his grief so deep it’s colourless, like sunlight –
her own deeper. How she made him stop
and scooped snow from the ditch
to clean the windshield. His surprise.
Or later, her body nearly weightless across his,
head in the hollow of his shoulder:
the distance of it. Where were they going
anyway, that day? Sundogs
brilliant to the south, meltwater
sheeting the highway, poplars, black spruce
jutting from the far ridge and beyond them
the solstice slowly filling the horizon: purple, orange,
pink, cream, blue, turquoise,
white.

Perhaps the relationship between forging and foraging has something to do with the relationship between love and listening, the exploration of which seems so central to this volume. Here’s the opening section of the poem “Practising Bach:”

There is, said Pythagoras, a sound
the planet makes: a kind of music
just outside our hearing, the proportion
and the resonance of things – not
the clang of theory or the wuthering
of human speech, not even
the bright song of sex or hunger, but
the unrung ringing that
supports them all.

The wife, no warning, dead
when you come home. Ducats
in the fishheads that you salvage
from the rubbish heap. Is the cosmos
laughing at us? No. It’s saying
improvise. Everywhere you look
there’s beauty, and it’s rimed
with death. If you find injustice
you’ll find humans, and this means
that if you listen, you’ll find love.
The substance of the world is light,
is water: here, clear
even when it’s dying; even when the dying
seems unbearable, it runs.

There it is: A sound that makes music the amorphous name of the orbiting of love and listening. Amorphous because I imagine Zwicky won’t be bothered if while reading this poem we think not of Bach but whatever music we most appreciate at the moment. Orbiting because love and listening are both falling toward and fleeing from one another. Those last nine lines again:

Everywhere you look
there’s beauty, and it’s rimed
with death. If you find injustice
you’ll find humans, and this means
that if you listen, you’ll find love.
The substance of the world is light,
is water: here, clear
even when its dying; even when the dying
seems unbearable, it runs.

A careful arrangement of accidents (the coincidences of sound and meaning) that gives us something essential. I remember here a line from Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good, “love is knowledge of the individual.” And I remember a statement from Feng Sun Chen’s poem ‘Concerning Nothing’ – “Souls are eardrums.” And I remember a sentiment that Tolstoy attributes to Pierre in War and Peace. From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation:

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

I feel that Tolstoy is saying the same thing as Zwicky, but from the other side. The narrator of “Practising Bach” tells us we can get to love by way of listening. Pierre tells us we can get to listening by way of love. Are these two stars the binary system at the center of language?

Consider the sun. Here there is fusion. Two atoms come together. They decide they have too much. Something comes apart. Here there is radiation. An effusion of light. Is that like language? In any case, it is an imperfection of unification that travels from the sun to the earth, that facilitates the projection of mind into mind by way of sight, that facilitates a further unification. And injustice, the imperfection of our unification, does that serve something, the way light serves us? It is too much to answer yes, but it is not enough to answer no. Those lines again:

Everywhere you look
there’s beauty, and it’s rimed
with death. If you find injustice
you’ll find humans, and this means
that if you listen, you’ll find love.
The substance of the world is light,
is water: here, clear
even when its dying; even when the dying
seems unbearable, it runs.

The scene cannot be unexpected. So why do we have to be told, and every generation told again? Here’s “Lying down in My Hotel Room, Thinking about the Day:”

I have spent too long
telling the world is the world to the world
and poetry is made of language.
Today at the Bedford platform, I began
the great poem: weeping openly on the public
telephone – the way some were staring
as they swirled past, the way some
weren’t – yes: it was the truth
at last.

Whether the apple falling or the peach being eaten, it is poet philosophers and philosopher poets who must convince us of the extraordinariness of the ordinary, who venture out across the “turf of dailiness” and bring back the most incredible tellings. That potato is the only leverage we have against the dying. That is the hand of our impossibility made visible.

Forge is published by Gaspereau Press. Jan Zwicky is Professor Emerita in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria. You should read these poems.

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