Arda Collins

Live from the Vortex: A Review
GutCult Winter 2005 Reviews

William Waltz, Zoo Music (Slope Editions, 2004), $14.95

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.
                    Moonlight pools
                    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 half-conscious associations,

                    with its peach streetlights blooming
                    under an arbor of steeples, cables
                    antennae—vertiginously sublime.

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 orbit.”

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.
                    I camouflaged
                    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.

                    I waited.

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 stanza:

                    I prop my parlor windows open to the smell of wet leaves and hail
                               hangs, a possibility. With a ham radio in my suitcase
                                         and 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 house,”

                    We might nest
                    Under a burning bush
                    Hell, we’ll get used it.