Book Review Wednesday: Rachel Zucker’s First Two.

25 October 2006

Rachel Zucker. Eating in the Underworld (Wesleyan UP, 2003).
—-. The Last Clear Narrative (Wesleyan UP, 2005).

Rachel Zucker’s poetry is quiet and formal, yet they are not artificial and mannered. Her poems are allusive and expansive, while retaining a here-ness, an in-the-world-ness, that makes the accessible. Yet I wouldn’t call these poems “accessible” in the way that word is often applied to the poems of, say, Billy Collins or Robert Hass. Clearly, I have trouble describing Rachel Zucker’s poems, and I think that’s what makes me want to take the chance, both of reading them and telling others about them.

Eating in the Underworld, her debut, takes as its central device the Persephone myth. The poems in this book follow the myth while giving rise to new twists and turns to this classic tale; the collection takes a step beyond being simply mythological and becomes mythopoetic. Although her style and her aesthetic aren’t my typical cup of tea, I find these poems satisfying and even inspiring.

Her second book, The Last Clear Narrative, is a pregnancy cycle, presumably semi-autobiographical, revolving around the transformative experience of bringing new life into the world. I really enjoyed The Last Clear Narrative. It is more accessible, less cryptic than Eating in the Underworld, but it’s poems and whatever narrative they articulate are more fragmented. Although surprising, it’s just this kind of tension and even contradiction that makes for good literature.

Contemporary poetry in the United States is in a bad way, to paraphrase George Orwell’s famous lament for the state of the English language in 1949. Many contemporary poets seem to favor an idiom that is so oblique as to become inescapably pretentious, so obsessed with lyrical idiosyncracy as to become incomprehensible. Zucker, a very intelligent, well read, and ambitious poet —qualities which can be detrimental in a poet—, manages to use an oblique idiom without soaring beyond a reader’s understanding and use idiosyncracy as a bridge, a connector between poet and reader, in a way few contemporary poets do.


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