Sometimes I pause while reading poetry, just to thank God it isn’t prose. Bless you, prose, for your great wellsprings of unconsciousness, your ubiquity, your chambray utility. Don’t know where we’d be without you and all, but in any book of poetry—regardless of its ‘type’—I dread the moment I stop and realize:
Great Caesar’s Ghost, it might as well be prose.
One of my barometers for de facto prose measures the degree to which the writer appears to be willing to leave any one word well-enough alone, to let the poor bugger just sit there and perform whatever humble function mere meaning allows. But William Waltz has a nearly hyperactive affection for where and to what individual words lead; reading the poems in his Zoo Music is like spending an afternoon in a well-stocked toy store with a wildly enthusiastic yet discriminating kid. You’ll learn more about the iterations of play than you thought imaginable, and eventually you may find yourself wondering if such imaginative enthusiasm is, indeed, desirable— but by the time you’re done the recompense in registers of good dumb fun and good smart fun will have made the expenditure worthwhile. Fun! but exhausting! Of course, were it not for the exhaustion, the fun would be less conspicuous.
Zoo Music clocks in at 71 pages, includes a keen introduction by Dean Young, and leaves little room for boredom. And that Waltz holds back so little, so infrequently acknowledges the possibility that words all by themselves might not contain infinite entertainments . . . well, this enthusiasm earns a tone that by Zoo Music’s completion makes the fun something close to poignant. The book’s a scale-model of America made of linguistic Lego’s, equally accurate and absurd.
Let me give you a few examples of the kind of single-word based play of which Waltz is so enamored, from the first two stanzas of “Remember Husky”:
not slim or copper rivets,
prints lifted off metal flake
or a fender’s enamel bosom.
Remember straight pins congregated
under a steeple of digits, a bucket
swirled with shiners, weary green moth.
This isn’t the aloof pleasure of the spare, well-wrought sentence. This is all about what one word can do to complicate, compliment or conjure another: slim to rivets to prints lifted, then dropped down to pins and digits, that bucket swirled—to say nothing of the alliterative suggestions or the fact that you just know that when he runs out of room to tweak the sounds just so, Waltz is sitting with chin in hand, wondering about a fender’s enamel . . . what? And a bucket filled with shiners moves . . . how?
To be fair, this kind of monad-manipulation isn’t Waltz’s sole style; just a signature tic. I focus on it because of its signature quality, but also because as he moves away from the tic he acquires some less effective pathologies. He has a few prose poems that read more or less like this selection from “Assistant to the Stars”:
Governor piledrives Jawbones of Late Show into Turnbuckle. He’s Action Figure with intermittent impetigo. I stash alibis under grandstands in green mint boxes. Careers have family trees. I am cut man, idea guy, right-hand man with two right hands. I am from elsewhere. Yesterday Hidden Camera arrived and for a moment I felt nostalgic for Times we were all dreamers, so I opened my black box and offered First Lady a peek.
Zoo Music has a couple of pieces that resemble this—”Industry,” “Invisible Hand,” “Momentum” —and I don’t think any of them work particularly well, partly because they remind me of territory better mined by Matthea Harvey, but mainly because they lack the irresistible word-fetishization that Waltz foregrounds in the remainder of the book.
Only a pedant would point out that there’s more to poetry than this word-fetishization, but poets often lack the good manners to wear their pedantry where it can be seen and summarily judged, and so the syllable-level devotion to aural affinities that Waltz displays can acquire a kind of praise by faint damnation: well, that’s nice, William, sounds good, but . . . with the hanging implication that if this is the level of your concern, then there’s a whole world of Poetry! Poems, Lad! compared to which such delectations are mere trifles.
Okay. But Zoo Music proves that just because such judgments could be accurate doesn’t mean they achieve accuracy in every specific instance simply because their general possibility remains. In fact, the more general the claim, the more subject it becomes to a superficial plausibility that prohibits the appreciation of the particular. (Take heed, Houlihan.)
This isn’t to say that Waltz does not or cannot go too far. For instance, by this point in his “How to Keep a Job at the Crime Lab,”
Whisper one true thing into the cauliflower
ear of your dearest enemy. Mention
your blue cockatoo, reference friends
in candy conversation. Encourage lives of crime:
leave transoms and skylights ajar.
Hunker down. Vote for sadsacks,
hardheads and scalawags.
even I begin to suspect that the whole poem exists just so he can buy himself the chance to say sadsacks and hardheads and scalawags. But when evaluating how far is too far, we have to ask not just what are the consequences of the apparent indulgence, but what might be lost were a less obsessive sensibility to prevail.
In Zoo Music’s case, turning down the volume even a little would be tantamount to complete silence, and we would thereby lose all those instances in which Waltz, relative to his own word-mania, provides a pause. Consider this fragment from “The New Normal”:
Today we live
In a swanky treehouse
Deep in boreal thunder.
Canopy our quarter,
The moon our neighbor.
She rattles the trees,
Flashes the glasses.
We click digits and
The same precocity, but marshaled differently. Flashes and glasses, digits that click, waggle and rattle, canopy and quarter. But note also the patience of the grammar, the reliance on subject’s simple seduction of verb, the conspicuous lack of clause pile-ups. This restrain reads as radically more effective when we’ve accustomed our reading to the likes of
(The bell tower, senile, dreams of .01666.)
. . . mysterious ellipses cooing in the rafters . . .
Beside a small bonfire of pocket watches,
scenics and stunts scrum.
Another “they” tows a faultline
into the shadows of the electric fence.
in the margin
—pregnant caesura licking sleep
from the rheumy eyes of extras.
(from “Film Adaptation”)
Lest it seem that I’m arguing that the merit of the former style is to be found only in its cessation, let me note that it is the very variousness of the latter style that establishes a base sensibility from which Waltz can then choose to deviate, as the poems and mood require. Once it’s made clear that we share the company of a man for whom the least linguistic point provides perfect provocation, then his later focus demands a whole new layer of attention. And when the whole show achieves balance, as it does it the excellent long poem “Natural Selection, Part Three” (partially excerpted below), then Waltz lays out an irresistible language:
A lonely constellation of islands
Smoldered like delinquent embers
In a black forest of wet wood.
Willows along oxbows, dividing
Amoebas on incandescent slides,
The islands clumped together,
Surrounded by twilight without edges.
A lucid dream of friction,
The ocean massaged coral shoals
With translucent limbs of krill.
Until one secret remains the wind will whisper irreducible.
An island’s heart is a rumbling
A void swaddled by esophagus and stomach,
An engine empty of ideas.
Besides, that quality of exhaustive fun I mentioned previously communicates not just a property of the poems but a sensibility, and, finally, a tone, by which they are cumulatively characterized. Zoo Music is sweet, sweet in a way that reminds me of how insufficient is the saccharine for which such sweetness is generally mistaken. And essential to the delight is Waltz’s inability to or disinterest in reigning in his naked affection for poetry as an act that makes of words their imaginative most. In “Emergency Broadcasting System,” the narrator predicts to the unspecified other, whose love is assumed, that “after disaster is unavoided we’ll crawl / out of claw-footed porcelain / shed timber and naked windows, / dig ourselves out of the debris and broadcast again.”
Irrepressibility, incorrigibility: There are far worse enthusiasms than those that suffuse Zoo Music, and I’m happy to celebrate Waltz for his celebrations.