(Seattle, WA: Wave Books: 2019)
Earlier this year, @KylePlantEmoji tweeted:
Fun fact: some people have an internal narrative and some don’t.
As in, some people’s thoughts are like sentences they “hear,” and some people just have abstract non-verbal thoughts, and have to consciously verbalize them
And most people aren’t aware of the other type of person
This opened a dialogue of over 26k retweets and comments. Obviously no two humans think exactly the same, but I thought about this concept, this debate while I was reading Rachel Zucker’s SoundMachine. It opens with a poem, “Song of the Dark Room,” with the speaker, a mother, trying to soothe an agitated baby, her stream of consciousness in mostly complete sentences, drifting from describing the room to her therapist’s recommendations, to her relationship with her husband, to her trying to live and write simultaneously. All intensely intimate thoughts, she writes, “Why do I resist? / This. / Do I mean poetry or motherhood? / The boy yawns & rolls over. / What is need & what is fear? / How much to give? To give in?” This interaction between thought, action, and description works in a way that, even if you can’t relate or understand (I am not a mother!) that you are invited to feel not just the emotions but experience the processing of these emotions through writing — a truly unique feat.
Zucker’s book itself has a wide spine (256 pages!), and there is no subtitle indication that inside there are poems, and if you flip the pages, a lot of it looks like prose. But once you settle into the first poem, you will quickly discover that these are definitely poems (definitely, maybe). I’m taking this stance rather than describing this as a lyric narrative because poems as we have come to expect them can stray from language conventions just far enough to introduce you to the nuance of a given moment: how we use language or thought to describe what is happening, how we describe the emotions we feel, and how we respond, often which — if we’re being honest with ourselves — don’t necessarily align.
I’m not saying prose on its own can’t or doesn’t do this, and in a lot of ways, Zucker’s collection blurs the lines between the two, mirroring the content itself as blurred between thought and reality, deep emotional investment and objectivity. In Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem, he describes this duality as necessary, “Readers experience how the narrative or storylike element drives lyric poems; how the musical element, the rhythm of emotions, charges narrative poems; how the element of dramatic projection empowers many narratives, many lyrics. These varieties are continuous, like the universe.” That’s what makes the poems in SoundMachine so exciting: they reflect the true nature of the world while refusing one standard of language.
The other thing I enjoyed throughout this collection was how each poem depicts the process of writing itself while the writing is happening, with the background of life’s noise. The poem “Seven Beds Six Cities Eight Weeks” begins with the confession, “Yesterday I began writing a poem in The Book of Nothing called “Facebook or the End of Espionage.” The first line, “They already know all about you,” is all I wrote. Then, Nothing.” The Book of Nothing, for the next twenty-two pages is never explicitly described and is infinitely labeled. It is “not a poem,” “like a postcard sent to no one, with a frog’s real sound,” it “will not address the purpose of life” but “would address the question ‘what is work,’ if there were time for such investigations.” These internal musings are surrounded by the moments and memories of a friend as they are dying, guiding the reader through the process of writing while coping and navigating the existential question, What really matters?
In true poetic fashion, it’s up to us to explore the answers to these questions and fill in the blank pages of our books of nothing, whatever that means to us. This ambiguity is partnered with the same acute intimacy from that first poem. The speaker openly shares her thoughts not only while at home with a baby but describes a dream in which she cheated on “the Husband” as she calls him, and questions her identity and morality in almost every piece. In “In the End,” the speaker grapples with whooping cough as she tries to write another poem: “‘I am becoming someone else,’ I wrote in my notebook. ‘I am taking off the self I’ve put on, piece by piece, child by child.’ // I cannot write this in the kitchen because the beans have been cooking for three hours & if I go into the kitchen I will have to sauté onions, garlic, cumin & oregano in olive oil.” Both of these lines express a digression from what would be expected next, an admission of change by one’s own authority. It’s exactly this resistance between what’s happening vs. what one thinks about what is happening where the magic of poetry fights off the often discomfort that comes with thinking and feeling things we’ve learned to feel bad about.
It is refreshing to have these moments of doubt and fear expressed so clearly and in direct opposition to moments of teaching and friendship and resilience. The tension has a way of creating humor in these poems. The speaker in these moments reveals to us that our thinking is incongruous, that sometimes we lie to ourselves, sometimes we lie to others, sometimes the things we think don’t match the emotions we feel and that is fine.
And it is fine! Back to the tweet I mentioned earlier, people don’t think the same. In the same way, people don’t feel the same, respond the same, write the same, live the same as one another. What the speaker in these poems does by laying bare her thoughts, emotions and process is she allows her readers to reflect on our own, accept where we are, and recognize the role our environments play in all of these pieces that make us individuals. For the speaker, the expectations of women in society and mothers and teachers and friends create the soundmachine that never stops, and this book just might help guide its readers to begin the process of unlearning and unraveling, en route to finding one’s own identity.
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Timothy Lindner is an MFA graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University who currently works as an Adjunct Instructor for Middlesex County College.