Review of Songs for Relinquishing the Earth
From David Seymour , ellipse magazine, 2000

Rapprochement: The Poetry of Jan Zwicky

Which is not to say
there is no joy—only that
it’s never a reward.

(Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.66)

To read any of Jan Zwicky’s writings, be it her poetry or her philosophical work, is to encounter a passionate intelligence and electrifiyingly clear vision. Threading her work together, though, is an undercurrent, or undertow, of sadness that seems to be not wholly articulable in language. It is a sadness, I think, that is the burden of a world wisdom. It is the sadness born of witnessing beauty in the world while observing, at one and the same time, the industrial vigor with which we turn ourselves to the task of destroying that beauty’s source. It is the sadness born of listening for silences and hearing only the specious use of language, a use complicit with the technological determination of the earth as human resource. It is the sorrowful recognition we are alive and in the world, but remain detached from it; of realizing that this distance, this estrangement, is somehow our own doing:

the mistakes might have been human:
not justifiable, but as though
some sort of story might be told, simply,
from defeat, without apology, the way you might describe
the fatal accident—not to make sense of it,
but just to say, too late but still to say,
something had happened:
there was blood, blood everywhere, we hadn’t realized,
by the time we noticed, rivers of it,
nothing could be done.

(Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.55)

This contemplative sorrow is a sustained note carried through Zwicky’s work, from the intellectual occupations of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Trakl in Wittgenstein Elegies, to the complex of family experiences, memory, and place explored in The New Room, to Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and that book’s attempt to re-establish a more integral, lyrical connection with the world. However, through all of these metamorphoses, the sorrow-filled attention of Zwicky’s writing never sinks into despair because “the hand moving is the hand thinking, and despair says the body does not exist” (Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.32). To write, to craft, to play music—to listen for the Earth’s cadence through the rhythms of the body: we might, in this way, succeed in the recovery of beauty.

The world is waiting for us, all we need do is re-approach it. This re-approach, though, must carry with it the desire to develop a more intimate rapport with the world, must undertake a renewed consideration of ourselves and how we inhabit the world through thought and language, and must acknowledge that initiating this rapprochement entails not only an acceptance of loss but a celebration of it as an essential aspect of our being. These are the concerns that Jan Zwicky’s poetry and philosophy set out to unfold, and question.

II

What we have seen is what the world acquires
From the strangeness of the way we see …

(Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies, p.21)

Important to Zwicky’s writing is the notion of lyric and how existence hangs on that notion like a coat on a hook; with a practical efficiency and the beauty of simple invention. Zwicky clarifies her position in an `open letter’ letter written to Robert Bringhurst concerning polyphonic theory as it relates to our existential position in the world:

Being is the marriage of music and silence—by which I mean it’s an
ecology. We are, anything is, when it listens and sings, not when it
looks and says. And it listens and sings when it joins the chorus, not
when it yells, wheezes, or melodifies its piece without paying attention
to how that expression might pleasingly fit with-&-against what it’s
hearing.

(Zwicky, “Being, Polyphony, Lyric”, p.182)

You might say that a kind of lyrical attention to being is the pre-occupation of Zwicky’s poetry. It is a pre-occupation that requires patient attendance: a tolerant and honed ear. It also is a pre-occupation that attempts to invoke both music and silence in a variety of ways, to bring the voice of music and the listening ear of silence into language.

The inclusion of a number of different voices in her poetry is one method of invocation. The likes of Beethoven, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Bruckner find their way into the clearings of Zwicky’s poems at one point or another. Whether they arrive as complements or as intellectual counterpoints their presence is intrinsic: more than one voice implies a shared description of the world, and implies the need to question and compromise. This is particularly evident in Wittgenstein Elegies, where Zwicky employs two or more distinct voices throughout the book and even within a given poem. In Elegies, the ‘voices’ of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Trakl enter the poems and commingle with Zwicky’s. The conversation is part tribute to the poet and to the philosopher and their respective works, but it is also an attempt to more fully realize the rich detail of life that brought Trakl and Wittgenstein to the conclusions about the world they found themselves in. Zwicky’s elegies provide space for each voice to question its destiny. The differing voices bring human detail into the formulation of meaning, and these details offer otherwise abstract meaning a kind of lyricism: “Work in philosophy is work upon / Oneself, slow chip and erasure, / … / Digs nails hard into the darkling core, seeks ever / For a rubric honest as a kiss” (Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies, p.42).

The use of multiple voices is not, I think, merely a formal trope for Zwicky. It is fundamental to the nature of meaning for her, how that nature is musical; lyrical and spatial rather than analytic or linear. She does not include the voices to fragment meaning or upset the reader’s expectation of a unified voice, but instead to create a resonance between voices; a collection of parts, a polyphony, that is more integral to meaning than any homophony. Meaning occurs between voices, it is the event of a dialogical encounter, and as such occurs as communication—something that cannot be portrayed as successfully with a single voice.

The borrowed voices are also an active representation of the idea that meaning itself is borrowed, that the language with which we acquire and convey meaning is a place we visit but do not own. This idea is crucial to understanding Zwicky’s poetry, and to understanding why she has chosen poetry as a means of expressing her thought.

III

To dwell once meant to err,
to tarry in one’s course.
All residence is borrowed.

(Zwicky, The New Room, p.65)

In Zwicky’s poetry, the need for a sense of place, the idea of permanent residence, the desire for the feeling of home which inhabits us as we grow older, is revealed as a migration across the memory of our lived experience. Home becomes, in a sense, the accumulation of the movement away from it: and homesickness is the vulnerable moment when we realize that our transience is constant and we are “caught stumbling / in between, longing for home” (Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.37).

This idea of home as a project of recovery is a significant (and personal) theme taken up in The New Room. The rooms envisioned in The New Room are filled (or emptied) with the remembered details of youth as perceived by the adult, “deep freeze mumbling to itself, / the smell of fresh milk, separator screw / you always turn to tight if given half a chance” (Zwicky, The New Room, p.14). Beneath the details, though, there lies a sense of homelessness. Whenever a room or home makes an appearance in The New Room, it is accompanied by “the far off / unlit harbour between breaths” (Zwicky, p.14), the realization that memories are absences which, for good or ill, cannot be recaptured but simply brushed past. The memory of home for Zwicky remains “that dream / still trying, still trying to get there / after everyone has left” (Zwicky, The New Room, p.60).

Home and dwelling also provide apt ontological metaphors for Zwicky’s broader philosophical concerns:

Nothing prepares us
for the shape of speech and dwelling,
the fit of homed to home.
Truth is strangest at its most abstract:
the clotted geometry of coat hangers,
knots in the kitchen string.
Houses hold us
as a pure philosophy holds dream.

(Zwicky, The New Room, p.52)

Housed in any structure, be it a physical home or the logical architecture of a philosophy, are the particulars which vitalize the space they inhabit simply by the fact and confusion of their presence. The ‘new room’ discovered can be thought of as an unprepared clearing, the “many-windowed room of speech” (Zwicky, The New Room, p.64): a place where the detailed intimacies of desire and memory furnish meaning, but where the newness of a dwelling signals not only the novelty of fresh beginnings but an emptying sense of loss.

IV

The gift of lyric is to see the whole in the particular; and in so doing, to bring the preciousness, which is the losability, of the world into clear focus.

(Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy, LH 302)

Although a span of several years exists between the appearance of the two books, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth seems, in many ways, a poetic extension of the arguments set forth in Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy. Both crystallize around the question of our ability to confront loss, and the possibility that relinquishment is the most compatible response to the world. Where Lyric Philosophy adopts a non-linear format in order to address the problems of more traditional systematic philosophies, Songs, in its initial incarnation, sought to remind us that form is as much a physical gesture in poetry as it is a linguistic structure. Initially, Songs was hand published, hand-stitched and bound by the author as per individual request. Its very construction re-addressed what a book of poetry has come to mean. The physical book can be approached as a poem in itself, enclosing the written poems within. It reminds you that poetry is handicraft, not only language play, that an aspect of poetry is the physicality of the page. Songs displays itself as poetic apparatus, or, in the poet’s own words, as a ‘lyric object’. Zwicky states in an unpublished letter:

I was trying to achieve an integrity of material form and verbal
content … The words in the book are about relinquishing the earth,
both letting go because we & it are mortal, and having to let go, here
and now, because of the stupid things we’ve done to it, and grieving
that relinquishing. I needed a physical instantiation that was not
complicit with the abuse that’s being grieved … If the gesture succeeds,
the book is a lyric object, a piece of lyric thought.

(Zwicky, from an unpublished letter)

Songs enacts what it says; it becomes lyric in itself. It performs its philosophy, and there is an integrity to be observed in this demonstration.

There exists in Songs, as in much of Zwicky’s work, a rewarding intellectual complexity. Some of the poems are riffs departing from the works of classical musicians, or Western philosophers, or in the case of “Kant and Bruckner: Twelve Variations” a formally experimental combination of both. The poems make us work but they also work with us, so that our struggle to understand is also the poem’s struggle to mean. The precision of her language and the finely honed lyric in her verse maintain a lightness and energy that allows an internal momentum to gather in the reader:

                             that held breath
between the future and the past that’s neither,
but is still
the only place we’ll ever be arriving
to, the only place it’s possible
we are.

(Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.44)

In the second of “Five Songs for Relinquishing the Earth,” Zwicky reveals that place as a condensate of memory, imagination and hope:

Remember how the track swung out
around the cutbank in the full light of noon?
In my dream,

I took off my rings then, my bracelets,
the gold locket.
To stand bare-headed among the pines!

(Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.50)

Even the exclamation mark in the poem comes at us with the celebratory force of one of Basho’s haiku.

Yet the celebration in Songs is a celebration constantly mitigated by grief. These poems are songs of relinquishment, songs of letting the world go, of letting the tight-fisted grasp we’ve had on the world finally unclench. We must give up the earth, for only in that act of relinquishment can we come to understand what it is we are giving up: we will acknowledge it by its absence. Zwicky manages to hold a sense of mourning and celebration together in tension in her poetry. It is a tension best articulated in a section from the coda of Lyric Philosophy:

So the two—lyric and the aim of philosophical security—are reconciled
only in that moment when the world is secured by the act of relinquishing
it. That is, if the way to secure the world from loss is to give it over to
the fullest possibility of loss.

(Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy, LH 302)

Songs implies that giving oneself over to the fullest possibility of loss depends not only on the language of poetry but on poetry’s silences. Each of the poems in the collection are “ambassadors from the republic of silence” (Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p.10), a silence that is both ideologically and aesthetically charged. As a hand-made book, Songs resisted the large-scale publishing agenda where marketability subordinates craft, and closed its lips to a publishing world that is becoming increasingly indifferent to poetry. Also, Zwicky’s language invokes a silence that is palpable, a silence that reconnoitres the possible space wherein we might re-approach the world:

Evil is not darkness,
it is noise. It crowds out possibility,
which is to say
it crowds out silence.
History is full of it, it says
that no one listens.

(Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, p. 33)

Zwicky’s poetry speaks to, and of, and with, the silence between one phrase and another, between loss and recovery, between the inhaled breath and the first note, between letting go and the celebration of that open-handed gesture.

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