(Montreal, QC: DC Books, 2019, $18.95, 100 pages)
Review by Bill Neumire
Vallum’s very own Eleni Zisimatos’ first full-length poetry collection, Nearly Terminal, is out from DC Books, and its bold terminality surfaces in many ways throughout this powerfully staccato collection: the book is full of phrases that begin but are ended abruptly; a central personal relationship for the speaker has ended; and an existential ceasing is also at stake from the very opening epigraph, which warns that “[t]he death of human consciousness is white.” Zisimatos, who was short-listed for the Robert Kroetsch, Irving Layton, and Santa Fe Writers’ Awards, presents her language like tire tracks in snow: white space abounds in this fragmentary diction of abstraction. The speaker characterizes her own voice in a Stevens-like moment: “in the mind a voice / that is not a voice.” The effect is defamiliarization, especially in how to classify the poems, which seem at first glance Eastern in form, but on closer inspection, are very broadly erasure-like and existential. Nearly Terminal employs a distancing from “wild meaning” via frequent lack of punctuation or titles, such that all of the poems become one continuous set of tracks through the dominating snow of the pages. Brevity is central here as each poem is, at most, fourteen lines (and few words make up each line). These, taken separately, are hints at events, at presence. This form makes sense with the poet’s idea of her own process, as Zisimatos has said,
I will not call what I do a “practice,” although the Zen idea of living in the moment has, indeed, been called a practice. I do not schedule when I write. I can honestly say that I live from one moment to the next and have difficulty planning ahead for more than one or two days. As such, the writing that I do comes furiously in sporadic moments, and I can write fifty pages in two days.
The three sections of Nearly Terminal hinge on the missingness that erasure poetry revels in. The book begins with two epigraphs, this second one from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Isaiah, 59:10:
Let us grope along the wall like the blind,
Let us grope like those who have no eyes;
We stumble at midday as in the twilight,
Among the vigorous people we are like the dead.
There is a meta commentary at work throughout these pages to aid the reader as the haiku-like clusters are described by the speaker as “words decentering / releasing // the feel of the animal.” Yes, the feeling is of tracking an animal in winter, of reading “[t]he words of a smart director // involved in a crime.” In another moment, the text is “turned over, beaten / Giving up / The textual.” The short lines make for numerous line break opportunities, and the poet takes full advantage of multiplying possible meanings (to give up the textual, or to give up and use the textual as a vehicle for giving up?) with each turn to a new line. So, what does it mean to give up the textual? Partly it is to become visual, and thus the snow-blind landscape takes on more significance. It is also to become that mind voice without a voice. Like tire marks, the poems, taken individually, only give you a sense of direction and speed. But they add up, not to a full, conventional narrative, but certainly to a tonal sense of loss, of yearning:
With the tire marks fading
The presence of it, yes
It did occur, when, why
It moves like fumes
Narrative and traditional form and pattern seem near dead already in contemporary poetry, but nonetheless, an anti-narrative, anti-pattern is the stance of this speaker who claims a prideful, celebratory identity in the following lines:
And there is us, the fragments
Who have destroyed the Pattern
The glory of the invincible
The rockets firing
The speaker is not the much-attacked confessional I, but at the heart of these abstract tire tracks, there is a motor, a generator, an individual who has suffered personal loss, whose “longing / unmasks itself.” The relationship to narrative and pattern is like the speaker’s relationship to the other that has spurned her, who has left her
Torn by ravens
A past that
The future rotten
Movement of streetcars
Into and out of
Present indication that is
The three sections of the book perform their snow-blind spell to connect the personal life to the larger Life that touches everyone: “My life / This life / Your life.” The role of desire, of failed love and memory is strong, and this despair is always sewn to whiteness: “There is so much despair // Such white.” The speaker continues with this brilliant lament:
You want me to sing, dance
It is not just age
I used to be happy, once
It was then
Like then becomes the altar
To worship to
Then most often becomes the “altar / to worship to” when relationships are at an end, and all relationships end with death. Terminal is, for one thing, an expression of diagnosis, of disease. From the beginning, this is a book of the end: “Knowledge of whom, it all began / With the end.” It is a book of last breaths wherein “Every day is marked // For termination.” The collection, in some ways, has no beginning, no poem titles, and as for endings, “There is no ending sir / just the melody.” This is a book of haiku that aren’t haiku, stories that don’t end, sonnets sliced vertically in half, empty pages that remain largely empty, a book declaring against
Declares you must
Too much, too much
It comes to you
This honed, roaming madness is Nearly Terminal’s alternative to wild meaning, a new meaning that does not commerce with beginnings and endings, but rather is only interested in “The free sound of your being / That which you will one day not / Hear any more.” Even as it ends with language, it really ends with resonant echoes, echoes which take an overtly hopeful turn in the last few pages, reminding us that giving up is only a “false solution” which crumbles compared to
Certain truth: Love
The looking inwards, outwards
Creating bonds, the
this love, this trust, still
Yes, inward and outward is poetry’s domain, and poetry like this is a sign that those saving, necessary bonds between us are still possible.
Bill Neumire‘s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award, and recent poems have appeared in The Harvard Review Online and Beloit Poetry Journal. He reviews contemporary poetry for Scout, Vallum, and Verdad, where he serves as a poetry editor.
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