Havoc: New and Selected Poems, by Linda Stern Zisquit
The Sheep Meadow Press, 2013
A poet once observed that collected poems only appear when the world suspects a poet is about to die, or is already dead. What, then, is the occasion for a volume of selected poems, or “new and selected”? Former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan gave her selected poems the tongue-in-cheek title “The Best of It,” suggesting that “selected” meant the cream had been skimmed off the top. “Collected” can sound equally like curating or hoarding, whereas “selected” suggests only discriminating taste, the best fruits plucked from the tree.
For Linda Stern Zisquit, an American who has made her home in Israel for more than three decades, “selected” means the best, but in this case the selections also demonstrate a kind of sped-up change in the poet’s work. In “Havoc,” her volume of new and selected poems, what the poet clung to in her early writing can be seen, sloughed off, in her later work, like an unwanted article of clothing. This progress isn’t immediately evident -- it’s not like watching a flip book in reverse motion -- but after starting with the poems from Zisquit’s first book (1993), I did read “Havoc” from end to beginning, looking for what grew into or disappeared from the poems over time.
The younger Zisquit -- who for a decade edited poetry for Tikkun magazine -- finds a rich trove of images and stories in Jewish texts and rituals. “Ritual Bath,” the title of her first full-length collection, refers not only to the mikveh but to the cumulative effect of the poems: We’re surrounded by so many reinterpretations of particularly Jewish moments. But the rituals aren’t only Jewish -- they’re also the poet’s own, as in “Morning Exercise.” Rituals that surround, that comprise a kind of liquid solution in which to live life.
When Zisquit does make use of religion, she finds a psychoanalytic side to particular Jewish stories and practices, as in “While Three Men Sit in the Next Room Discussing the Talmudic Tractate on How to Prove a Woman Adulterous.” The title refers to the practice, first outlined in Numbers 5, of giving a woman suspected of adultery a draught of poison. She would escape the effects of the poison unharmed if she was not an adulteress, but if she was guilty, her “belly would distend.” The speaker of the poem overhears the discussion and imagines being the woman described in the tractate: “Before the poison works its fever/ before the regrets/ begin…”
As with many poets who borrow from legend and myth, Zisquit’s early poems are most effective when she leaves pure persona behind and lets her source material drive her toward an unexpected image or emotion. In the best of “Ritual Bath,” she lets both personal and Jewish ritual surround and describe the poems’ trajectories, as a container does to liquid. In the poem “Dead Center,” she describes the aftermath of a rendezvous with a lover (who is married to someone else): “Later the Sabbath siren/ is unrelenting. I carry recipes/ intact across town, prepare the soups/ and melons as prescribed. For the first time/ I am ready before the stars.”
The poet doesn’t find meaning inherent in ritual so much as she discovers it to be a repository for frustration and anguish, the “sound ripped off my chest/ like an insect unwinged in his book.” Still-life is just as important as movement in these poems: “Pregnancy frees./ The egg released and caught in its museum…Red towels/ for the blessing, the ones/ I’d always use to cover my head,/ still dripping outside.” Ritual -- its still images as well as its gentle or frenetic movements -- skirts the object of the poet’s emotion, and by doing so tells us something about that emotion’s shape.
Negative spaces of loss
As “Havoc” -- and Zisquit’s career -- progresses, the poems become less about shaping an uncontainable emotion and more about describing, visually and rhythmically, the negative spaces of loss. You could call the final two-thirds of the book “The Art of Losing.” This loss is beset with vexing paradoxes, as in “A Word Before the Last, About Loss,” which begins with the biblical Jacob’s statement about Joseph’s rumored death. “For I will go into the grave unto my son mourning,” he says, because he has not seen Joseph’s body. Zisquit, too, writes of the dreamlike torment of looking for someone who can’t be found: “Precisely because you are alive/ there is no comfort in this world./ Because wherever you are not/ I search, and where I hear your step/ you have not been or left a mark.” And in “Riddle,” a meditation on the ways objects supplant missing people: “What’s left/ when a man disappears?/ his hat?” Zisquit plays almost mathematically with the relationships between the lost and the left-behind, rearranging them like chess pieces to expose both the coping techniques of the abandoned and the gaping absences left by the departed.
The habit of poets to title their books after one poem naturally brings the reader’s eye to that poem. “Havoc” is a nerve-racking title -- its connotation is wildness but, on its own, it’s like an objectless verb. We enter the book expecting movement, even chaos, but precipitated by what? The eponymous poem, which comes next-to-last in the selection of Zisquit’s new poems, is a ghazal -- many of her new poems borrow from and play with this ancient Persian form, in which a repeated refrain, one word or a few, marks the close of the second line of each rhymed couplet. Because in English the form loses a lot of its metrical intricacy, the rhythm of an English ghazal falls heavily on the repeated end-word, which traditionally is also the title. In her new poems, Zisquit makes unsettling end-word choices, one of which is havoc. (Others include “slowness,” “routine,” “hand” and “me.”) If you haven’t read a lot of ghazals, imagine any of those words, alone, being the hook in a pop song -- because they are modest, conversational words, the lavish attention the ghazal form focuses on them is sometimes transformative, sometimes hypnotizing, sometimes embarrassing.
While changed connotations of a word or phrase might be a familiar hallmark of poetic repetition, that last effect -- embarrassment -- is strangely what becomes Zisquit’s trump card in these experiments with form, and also one of her themes. Exploring the loss of (or tangled negotiations with) a lover and exposing the speaker’s personal flaws in the process seems to parallel the sometimes poor fit of a translated form to a foreign language. In one ghazal, “Panic” (a word prosodically similar to “havoc”): “And when panic/ sets into the leisurely dark, nothing grows/ out of it. Only impatience. Wild. No friend, panic.” Riding the grammatical line between noun and imperative verb, “Panic,” like many of the newer poems, returns to one of Zisquit’s earlier concerns: the tension, in art-making, between representing static beauty and inciting action; showing the present moment and allowing that it has already passed. (I think again of the “egg… caught in its museum.” Could there be a better image to convey the irony of trying to capture, whole, something that won’t stay still?)
For Zisquit, then, “selected” is a good adjective to put in the title of a volume of her poems, or maybe “selective poems” would be an even better moniker. No matter what received forms and cultural contexts they surround themselves with, these poems choose. But they do so hesitantly, with the awareness that whatever image they capture (a dying parent at the window, a woman avoiding the news of war), they have left reams of poetic film unexposed, let thousands of moments fall away without being recorded. Underneath the crisp control of Zisquit’s lens, the poet knows and conveys with subtlety, there is havoc.
Leah Falk is a poet living in Brooklyn, New York.