Friday, February 15, 2008

Poetry Friday/ Reader's Diary #330- Zachariah Wells: Unsettled (FINISHED)

After interviewing poet Zachariah Wells for Poetry Friday a couple months back, I had a response from his editor which simply said, "Okay, so buy Zach's book already."

I bought it. You should too.

Whenever one writes a review, that the author might read your opinions has to cross your mind. It's happened here before, and given the fact that I've already had correspondence with the guy, it's almost a given this time around. But if Wells claims to have "a borderline-autistic inability to observe social niceties and keep [his] mouth shut" then certainly I've also had similar symptoms from time to time. When Wells said it, however, it made nervous about eventually reading his book. Would it come across overly opinionated? I like when poets (or any authors) share their truth with us, but also don't like it when people claim their truth is universal (free free to argue the philosophy of truth) or worse, try to cram it down our throats. It's a fine balance and perhaps a lot to expect.

Fortunately, Wells was up to the task. For the most part, he keeps the poems local and personal by using individuals as characters rather than entire populations. This is important to me. His observations, and more importantly, the global relevance can be deciphered by me, the reader. Compare how less arrogant this poem seems:

Under midnight sun

A bored raven picks white bones
At the garbage dump.
A white man selects a dark
Mate outside the screaming bar.

than the opening stanza of "Nomads":

Nomads stumble in from the jobless
east, one rock island to another, uprooted
easy as hydroponic cucumbers, grumbling

Fortunately, the first is more representative of the poems in the book. The first, while dealing with two defined scenes and individuals, speaks volumes to me of man's nature. That is, I can generalize from the specific. In the latter, while the argument can be made that Wells talks about a specific situation (immigration to the North), it is still a generalization (of Newfoundlanders especially) that readers are not in control of, feels less intimate and therefore weaker. Note, this is not a problem of politics (I am, you should note, one of those rock to rock folks). I think the observations he made with "Nomads" are just as astute as the first poem, but I liked his story telling better than his finger pointing.

Occasionally, some readers might have a problem with the localism. I've done my share of bitching about obscure Greek references in poetry, arguing that readers shouldn't have to get a degree in mythology to understand a poem. While I understood most of the references in Unsettled (I even work with some of the people he mentions), I don't feel non-Iqaluimmiut would be at a major loss. For one thing, most unfamiliar words, people and locales can probably be understood (at least as well as the poet probably intended) through context. Still, a small glossary or appendix at the back wouldn't have hurt. How many of you know what maqtaq is? Or to what Wells was referring to with the hydroponic cucumbers line above?

In all though, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Not only does he give an accurate portrayal of a life here, the poems were very well written. Take this stanza from "Stacking Boxes in the Belly of a Flying Whale" in which Wells recalls his cargo handling days, stuffing freight inside a 727:

Everything must be flat: no curves, odd angles, gaps;
Hit it squarely, waste no space, make every box fit,
Even if you've got to crush it a bit,
Squeeze out all the air, chink every crack.
I love the sound of this so much; how well the almost rhyming assonance in the first line (flat, gaps) emulates the boxes that won'; how well the commas in the second line conjure up the pace; how well the hard sounds of "chink every crack" represents the physical struggle of the task. Absolutely wonderful.

The Soundtrack:
1. This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)- Talking Heads
2. Sixteen Tons- Tennessee Ernie Ford
3. Legion Nights- Errol Fletcher
4. January- Ravens & Chimes
5. Northwest Passage- Stan Rogers


John Mutford said...

For those people participating in the Canadian Book Challenge and looking for a Nunavut book, I can't recommend this one enough. It's by far the most authentic portrayal of modern life here that I've come across in print.

tanita✿davis said...

How cool are you to have even come up with a soundtrack!? None of my books will be that cool, ever. This guy must be something else! Thanks for the enthused recommendation.

Sara said...

It's satisfying to come here and find poetry that I absolutely would not stumble across any other way.

John Mutford said...

Tadmack: The soundtrack thing I started doing recently- basically just picking 5 songs that I think complement the book. I'm sure other readers and the authors themselves might disagree with some of my choices. Anyway, it's fun to do.

Sara: While I'm glad I've introduced you to his poetry, it is possible (however unlikely) that you would have come across it in the U.S.. His book is available through

Chrisbookarama said...

Hi John, I've finished another book for The Challenge:

A Complicated Kindness