|William Waltz, Zoo Music (Slope Editions, 2004),
Inside William Waltz’s collection
of poems, Zoo Music, its as though one has entered a sort
of imaginary natural history museum, in which the fauna and flora
in the still dioramas become animated by the poet; it is a planetarium
with a view from inside the head. “I will maintain my distance
from Vortex, smelling salts ready, the glass exoskeleton pulsing
between my fingers as if it were a honey bee,” Waltz says
in the opening poem, the first of several prose poems, “Assistant
to the Stars,” which is essentially the poet’s job description
here. The poet’s voice is a receiver that translates and distorts
the activity of the primordial swirl as it evolves from the black,
as in the poem, “The New Normal”:
I’m a conveyance.
She’s a portal.
Sleep’s a pork belly.
Like milk in our eyes.
These poems are a wild science of the lyric, broadcasting live from
outside the void. The story inside them feels at times to be a kind
of inter-evolutionary love story in which, as in the poem, “A
Little Blood,” the voice speaks from a part of consciousness
that perceives the world in a sort of half-state, and does not care
or is not able to differentiate between the man-made and the natural
world. “I am not drunk, Sir—,” the voice begins,
“inspecting the city simply,” and here, city is meant
in the loosest sense, a city of technological hardware haunted by
the tangible presence of pre-historic overgrowth; city of the imagination’s
with its peach streetlights blooming
under an arbor of steeples, cables
In this city, “a stranger offers a cigarette,” not on
the street, but, “on the/great plains”:
Even the billboards clotted
on the city’s countenance like mascara
swing as do the storefront dreams
falling away in the rearview mirror.
The poems take place in a jungle of the senses, often right here
on our own planet, but at times elsewhere in the cosmos, where the
activity sometimes floats and sometimes hurtles. As Waltz tells
us flatly in the poem, “Minor Drag,” “I’m
In Waltz’s supra-terrestrial view of this cross-pollinated
world, of course, we recognize a familiar state of affairs—regarding
self-consciousness, the knowledge of our own existence, and the
fact that our interface with the world is many things, but nothing
if not thrilling and a little bit sad.
In this, Waltz has re-invented Romantic notions of a human relationship
to the natural world, and the melancholy awareness of our existence
in time; wires, cables, leaves, vines, tangle up in the same electricity,
while “Tomorrow is a mundane idea—/I’ve grown
nostalgic for Now.”
I know it’s important to imagine
Flourishing in a faraway future
But I’m not calling
For perfect evolution.
Bacterial blooms are that.
But while these poems have wildness, in their mode of image and
association, and in their formal variety, they are guided by a desire
for order and even certainty; certainty in that the lyric voice
is, by nature, directed, even if it is only certain of the necessity
to speak. And the mode of lyric here has a primary sense of order
in its use of conventions—storytelling, music, ritual. The
second poem, “Bear Trap” is a kind of introduction or
quiet overture, a summary and an invocation of what is to come,
in gesture, image, music. The music is the familiar, primal excitement
of a heavy rain, as an imprecise but fundamental call to the future,
or to an other, to the void, and the instinct for this is the basis
for ritual, prayer, singing, even speech. The wind picks up, leaves
and branches start rustling; something is about to happen, someone
is alone out there getting wet:
I dug a hole
in the wet woods
behind the swinging bridge.
I felt productive.
Waltz is a primate, performing with importance this primitive task
using the methods of a chimpanzee, but with the plain, and even
elegant self-awareness of a human:
I could’ve used a bucket,
a pick, a hand,
but I felt productive digging
a well with a spade.
In particular, Waltz is a human engaged
in a set of gestures that are both functional and intuitive, which,
combined, raise a notion of an impulse to pray, even if the purpose
and direction of the prayer is unclear:
. . . I smoothed the clay
sides with a trowel
made of ash and bone.
From the bottom
of my hole, hands
cupped for communion,
I bailed. Was it
precipitation or the water table?
I built a ladder with sticks
and wild grape vines,
carried brush and branches
and leaves into the pit.
the opening with these.
Still the hole’s mouth was manifest,
so I unraveled my ladder
and placed each rung over the aperture.
I crouched in the trap
with one round stone
the shape of a skull
in my lap.
The woods were silent
save the last rain falling
onto the forest floor
and nature gently bending.
For the stone resemblance of a skull to transform into a real one,
for nature to bend slightly to meet him. Waltz’s preparations
are a primitive, ceremonial invitation to the universe to reveal
itself. What will be revealed occurs through the voice, in a landscape
that has its origins in reality and uses narrative methods, but
its mode of perception filters and distorts so that these poems
move associatively, as in, “Great American Western,”
and “Emergency Broadcasting System.” Like the best poems
in this collection, they are witty, often lonely, and move with
a velocity that feels strangely romantic. “Thundergust invades
my walls . . .” Waltz reports from the storm in “Emergency
Broadcasting System,” that eventually moves toward this lovely
prop my parlor windows open to the smell of wet leaves and hail
a possibility. With a ham radio in my suitcase
candles in my best jacket, I look for you.
Although these poems often operate disjunctively,
they operate with a tonal precision that creates a notion that what
we are being told should somehow be treated as real, as in this
sequence from, “Great American Western”:
. . . A small smattering of blood seeps
through your white west Texas cotton and we realize
there is no we only you and I.
One of us will leave before daybreak
before dew settles like ashes in the corners of our eyes.
Over the prickly terrain I’ll scour.
A fanatical beacon over scrubbrush
over the Gila monster over rock and desert blooms.
You’ll cross Mesa Verde under a full moon
with a broken rib. Your heroism indisputable.
Beauty will astound you.
In a snow squall I’ll pack the Black Hills.
We will suffer gladly
for suffering is a kind of commerce.
There will be many close calls.
You shivering in the Petrified Forest
me with a fever in Painted Desert. You stranded
in the Devil’s Playground me lost in Death Valley.
Somewhere between Moab and Mojave
I’ll begin muttering to myself and maybe
outside Medicine Rock you’ll start saying grace
over every meal. I’ll pass Hole In The Wall
going north—you headed south.
Someone in almost every town
in every territory will remember seeing one of us.
They won’t be sure which.
Only a few disparate details will be recalled
my belt buckle night’s black glint in your eye.
A wrangled priest will reveal
the secrets of the divining rod to me
while you’ll learn to charm snakes and bears
and somehow the same Hopi woman
will teach us both how to play the harmonica.
The self-awareness in these poems is part of their wit. For the
speaker, even when things aren’t going his way, he perseveres:
he has the bravery to go on existing. The effect is quite charming,
and it makes these poems not without real optimism. And this book
felt quite optimistic. Its formal variety is also part of this,
not primarily as an expression of exuberance, but as an idea of
mutability. While the atmosphere in these poems has a certain consistency,
it takes many shapes; it is an evolutionary organization, but a
lateral evolution rather than a hierarchical one. It is the willingness
to change, for better, or worse, or otherwise. As Waltz says in,
“The New Normal,” “Today we live/In a swanky tree
We might nest
Under a burning bush
Hell, we’ll get used it.