Where X Marks the Spot by Bill Zavatsky
(Hanging Loose Press, New York 108pp $15.00)
Back around 1980 or 1981, when I was editing joe soap’s canoe, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance, first by mail and then later in person, of a number of poets in New York. Paul Violi was the first, when I got hold of some of his poems, and he introduced me to Tony Towle, Charles North and Bob Hershon among others.... the others included Bill Zavatsky: I have a copy of his “Theories of Rain and Other Poems”. Even though I’ve been to New York a few times since then, and hung out with Violi, Towle, North and Hershon on a number of occasions, I didn’t get to meet Zavatsky until my last visit a couple of years ago.... And so this is a review of a book by someone I know and like. But I have a history (of sorts) of sometimes managing to be critical of books by friends, and then they strike me off their Christmas card list forever, so take nothing for granted.
“Where X Marks the Spot” is Zavatsky’s first book in 31 years if you discount, as he more or less does, a limited run book published in 1985, and of which most of the poems are (apparently) included here. Zavatsky ran SUN press between 1975 and 1985, and admits to being somewhat overtaken as a poet by his being an editor. Which I guess accounts for 30 odd years, not of silence, because he has published regularly, but of book-silence, anyways.
Like the other poets mentioned, Zavatsky entered poetry world in the New York dominated by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch (under whom he studied for a while) and James Schuyler, and all that was happening at the Poetry Project at St.Mark’s in the early 1970s, I guess it must have been.... But “Where X Marks the Spot” is far from your usual New York School book of poems (if there is such a thing, which I think there isn’t, but one can have certain expectations) mainly because, as Zavatsky points out in a typically open and frank account of his poetry life here, the things that happened in his life led him to turn away somewhat from the New York School aesthetic, such as it was and is, and look for ways he could (as he puts it) “confront what I felt – what I really felt – about my parents, my friends, the women in my life, my education, the Catholic church, and an armada of dreams that didn’t exactly leave me whistling when I woke up from them.” He says he found a way to do these things in poetry after discovering the storytelling in the poems of Charles Reznikoff. Stories, says Zavatsky, are “what most of our experience resolves itself into – the stories we tell to ourselves and others, the stories we, in fact, become”. In short, Zavatsky wanted his readers to enjoy and understand and feel his poems, and not “turn away from them puzzled or feeling stupid.”
All of which could be something of a challenge for me, because while I love the poetry of James Schuyler (as Zavatsky says, the most "confessional" of the New York School poets) there is enough poetry confession and poetry as therapy going around, thank you very much, and most of the time I can’t be doing with it. Give me puzzlement, sometimes. Thank you. Give me language that astounds me and makes my eyes and brain open wide. Thank you again. Make me wish I’d written that line! Gee whizz!
But you can’t take anything for granted, can you? I think “Where X Marks the Spot” is pretty remarkable, and if Zavatsky was trying to make a reader feel, he succeeded with this one, for sure. Not all the time, I think: I’m a bit of a tough nut to crack, maybe, and on certain days I just don’t give a damn about myself, nevermind anyone else. So if the poet is feeling like a failed poet or, more likely, a failure as a husband, then maybe I won’t care. But Zavatsky gets past my defences most of the time. A bit of me thinks he shouldn’t:
This is the first New Year’s
I’ve spent alone in twenty, twenty-two years.
Out there in the dark: my marriage, the woman
I loved badly, as she did me, or none too well…
(from “New Year’s Eve 1989”)
but he does:
Twenty years married, I made a lousy husband,
half asleep, selfish, more like a big baby
than a grown man, the poet laureate
of the self-induced coma when it came to
doing anything for anybody but me.
“Now and then he took his thumb
out of his mouth to write an ode to
or a haiku about the thumb he sucked all day.”
That’s what I imagined my ex-wife said…
(from “You Don’t Know What Love Is”)
Zavatsky’s honesty is so far removed from any connection with the look at me I’m a poet laying my soul bare school of poetics that it’s not unique exactly, but it's sure as hell distinguished.
What do I know except these confused ideas
I spout in the purity of my hopelessness…
(from “Reading Roque Dalton, Smoking A Nicaraguan Cigar”)
And here, as promised, there are stories – of Zavatsky playing jazz piano in clubs and wishing and hoping, in his youthful naivety, that he will get to take home the stripper. He doesn’t. About Steve Royal, a jazz musician who Zavatsky played with and who eschewed the music business and went back to work in the factory “and playing high school dances”. Zavatsky can tell a story, and he can make the reader feel: I love cats, and have seen many pet cats come and go, which perhaps made me overly susceptible to the story of the death of the family cat, but anyway....
I admit there were times reading this book I revisited my concerns about poems being just chopped up prose. I’ve been bothering myself with this a lot lately; in a review at Stride I took a poet to task (mainly for her prosey poems and fakey line breaks but also for her general fakey poetry-ness) and then I find myself reading
“It’s time,” the MC blurted, “for Danielle! Direct from Paris and Montreal, the loveliest of exotic dancers, here in an exclusive Fairfield County engagement…” and his voice drifted toward the glitter swirling on the ceiling of the Club Michelle where I hunched over a piano facing the wall as the audience summoned Danielle onto the floor. Next to me, on Fender base, stood Danny…
and here I’ve left out the line breaks and I’m wondering if the line breaks make any difference and what exactly is a poem? and do I care today? A few hours ago I was reading Ron Silliman writing about short lines and long lines and breaths and Robert Creeley and then Bill Zavatsky has got me all in a tizz again about this stuff when probably -- no, not probably, certainly what’s important is that these honest and passionate and human poems are exactly that. No pretence, no bullshit, no mask, no fake.