Andrew Zawacki’s latest poetry collection, Unsun, refracts recurring interests in sunlight and perception as a way of making visible our slow-going collective disaster. The nature of this disaster is manifold: the disaster of parenting in the midst of climate collapse; the disaster of human imagination—how our tools and machinery (both technical and philosophical) have exquisitely failed us; the disaster of our intellects’ failure to adequately address what are ultimately our spiritual limitations.
I’m curious at the artfulness of this collection, its intellectual asides and adroit interruptions. The elegance of Zawacki’s writing is both satisfying and exemplary of an ongoing concern I have with a certain strain of contemporary experimental poetry. I count my own work and poetics in my concern. He holds things at an intellectual remove, cultural bric-a-brac serving to preserve a delicate fragility like a veil of references between him and the horrors of reality. I’m reminded of how I slept as a child with a thin sheet curled around my ears to protect me from the monstrous night that sought to pour into me. At times, a real poignancy glitters so as to indicate a human behind the line. This carefully meted-out temperance of pains or astonishments feels emblematic to me of prestigious “difficult” writing. There’s a mournfulness in this work, a sense of sophisticated resignation held in place by observation and quotation. He seems to want to ask, How do we persist amidst a surfeit of references when we are possibly at the end? Yet what I want to ask him is, On the cusp of a massive global ecological paradigm shift, why aren’t you falling apart? The Unsun of this work is perhaps the black gravity of the literary and Zawacki’s indebtedness to it.
There are components of Unsun I’m personally drawn to and feel a strong aesthetic resonance with. I am deeply satisfied by his use of conceptual constraints, such as how his work references the f-stops in photography as a way of creating a scaffold that holds sections of his collection together. I geek out on his historical references, the astronomical trivia and intriguing units of measure, the interweaving of the banal with his research interests and cultural asides. His reclamation of the sonnet form feels like a safe way of providing some bumpers around what could ultimately be an unwieldy investigation. I suspect his use of form and his intellection is a way for him to not be eaten alive. The questions and perils the book skirts—especially his “Sonnensonnets”—around parenting amidst a mass crisis feel too unbearable for me to look directly at. Maybe that was the case for him, too. I see this in “U9 to Zoo Station Sonnet”:
We are all on our way
As if to refashion a surface : the metro car is a blown glass rapids, its
riffles a shattered windshield in the Higgs boson, varicose sun,
through a canyon flushed with iron filings—green, coral, halogen, rose
– the tongue of its railing reeled to a v and the scalar field a rumour under
the LLumar anti-vandal window film, the city a trance :
Let’s dance, daughter, like
When the heat’s tripped out and the hematite
Sky – offfocus,
lighttight – ’s gone
Bulletproof negative and iridial blue – T’es où, toi?
– Là, je suis là
The ethos of Unsun could very well be “We are all on our way / Out don’t / Rush.” He moves from this heart-wrenching statement into a densely articulated “poetic” utterance marked by schism, quick shifts in tone and reference, a sense of simultaneity and inundation. He then moves back to a more accessible plain speech with a direct address—“Let’s dance, daughter, like / Two escargots” and then a quick shift again into a poetic turn: “When the heat’s tripped out and the hematite // Sky – offfocus . . .” His typographic elision in “offfocus” and “lighttight” creates a sense of rupture in my eye, a visual performance of the literary. I’m personally elevated into a different mode of seeing, not reading. I now experience a “bulletproof negative and iridial blue” inside me. For me, this is one of many incredibly enjoyable poetic instants in his book. As someone who doesn’t speak French, this tension between experiencing versus reading continues with his last couplet. I know enough French to recognize what is being uttered, but my initial encounter with it is like a fabric that blows across my face or a melody in my ear. I hear a noise, a rupture, and end in a space of soft bewilderment, at a loss.
Part of my personal tensions with this book are directly related to this sense of constrained bewilderment. Overall, Unsun feels tempered; its existential pains are flirted with and gently stroked. Given the themes at the heart of this text, though, I wonder at this reserve. To be more accurate, it feels tightly controlled. Maybe I’m not the right reader for this book in this moment. I personally pine after something raw. What fury strives to reach up and cross out the sun? Despite my adrenal fatigue in this relentless cascade of social and political crises, I can’t look away. To be clear, I don’t think Zawacki is looking away, either, but his strategies feel unsatisfying to me in Unsun. In this climate and at this moment, I am thirsty for peril. How willing are any of us who’ve tasted some mild success or acclaim to make an inglorious mess? Especially when that hasn’t been the initial approach? If it’s not clear, I’m writing to myself as much as I’m writing about this book. I’m confronting an Unsun in myself. Can I abandon the things that worked before? I feel that I need to let go of all that I’ve built if I want to find something true. I wish this book had tried to destroy me.
Clearly, Unsun struck a chord within me. What that chord indicates feels complicated, and it’s maybe unfair of me to address this in a review, as if I were holding Zawacki to account for the broader questions that his work and approach opened in me. His poetry is artful, sophisticated, he knows what he’s about. I applaud him. I leave the concert hall, I beg strangers to run me over and leave me contemplating in the gutter.
Unsun. By Andrew Zawacki. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2019. 112 pp. $19.95, paper.