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How can it be, with streaming services and cable channels engaged in an all-out arms race for our so-called “entertainment” dollars, that no one has produced reality show about poets? Consider the current trend in reality TV in which we see a professional both at work — or example, appraising Civil War coins at a pawn shop, consulting a bride-to-be, or driving an 18-wheeler into an icy impasse — and going about his or her scripted daily life. This dual format weaves together an act and the life around it; or, if we imagine it in terms of poetry, the poem and the experience of being a poet in a world that seldom says yes to the ode.
Magdalena Zurawski’s recent book of poems The Tiniest Muzzle Sings Songs of Freedom, offers a glimpse into what this duality might look like. Zurawski weaves together the poetic utterance and contextualizing narratives, reminding us that the dual format has long been a fulcrum of Western poetics, from Dante to Susan Howe. Unlike her forbearers however, Zurawski draws a faint line between these two modes, opting to forego the conspicuous delineation of prose-block narrative and lineated poetry. Instead both modes appear in a consistent open-field arrangement. The poetic utterance adopts many of the strategies of contemporary postmodern poetry, disorienting the reader with jarring word combinations that distance language from its referential function. The contextualizing narratives take a more direct approach to language, establishing a stable speaker who recounts in near-confessional fashion the unglamorous life of a small-press poet.
These two modes are reflected in the book’s title. The first mode corresponds with Songs of Freedom. Freedom here refers to the free splay of signifiers, making the poem a site of incongruous connections, where surplus music and meaning escape immediate comprehension. A poem entitled “Mope” exemplifies the titular song of freedom.
This room has
only the rhythm of
flesh turned on
too soon. Someone’s
laughter sunsets behind
false air and
I come up
drenched in red
dots and iron
floes. Deep in
my nervous system
a sky fills
with frosted chatter.
I’m done. Finally
down. It’s clear:
I’ve earned nothing.
With its relaxing of boundaries — the four walls of the room, the body of the speaker, the line segregating night and day — “Mope” resonates with literary critic Hortense Spillers’s thinking of flesh as the ground for radical empathy. To carry this point further, consider another, perhaps more conventional, literary complement: James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Like Wright’s poem, Zurawski closes with a blunt realization. Yet instead of reflecting on one’s life as being wasted, the speaker in Zurawski’s poem confesses to have earned nothing. This is perhaps in part a personal recognition of one’s guilt over having privilege. Accordingly, the author’s anxiety over privilege presses us to see the dissolution of the body as a result of the dissolution of property rights. The poem is a counterpoint to the American rhetoric of hard-earned success — for instance, Trump insisting that despite a million-dollar loan (which turned out to be $415 million) he was completely self-made. As a song of freedom, “Mope” reroutes the referential bonds of language, shooting the self into a radiant splay of unassimilated signification.
The second mode, the poem about writing (and not writing) poetry, belongs to the heading of Tiniest Muzzle. The poems in this mode express skepticism about the efficacy of poetry in an era of technological rationality and political crisis. In these pieces, the speaker corresponds, to some degree, to the person described in the bio on the book’s back cover. This is the poet who lives a middle-class life as a professor of creative writing, in her off hours, on the domestic scene. In one poem, she honors the protest of Colin Kapernick by taking a knee in her front yard. But within the domestic sphere such gestures are illegible. Her neighbor takes her bent posture for yardwork, thinking she is only “weeding and waves.” In most of the Tiny Muzzle poems, it is impossible to determine if the manacle the author assumes is an external imposition, imposed by a society that fetishizes efficiency or a self-derived regiment. At one point, the internal voice echoes with aspirational propaganda: to be a good person “clip your toenails / and by sunrise make sure / you’re sitting at the table reading Arendt.” The anxiety around productivity comes to the fore most clearly in “The Problem.”
The problem—there was no longer a natural way to write. My hand,
the musculature of my hand, could no longer speed the pen to my thoughts.
I had worked too long on the machines.
The computer was just a television
and so seemed
only a way to distract me
from my writing
rather than preserve it.
The typewriter could give me speed, but paper seemed so easy to burn.
Should the house go up in flames, how would I edit the next draft?
Also, one had
to be both exactly right on the first try and
capable of later
locating each page in the house.
And how could
so much paper
not feel like scraps,
drafts, sorry attempts
unzapped into virtual
Instead, I wrote in thought at the edge of sleep
So that my best poems disappeared just as I began to dream. I know I was their only audience, but I am sure they were my best work. If only I know how to retrieve them, know where they were stored.
The culture industry has replaced the speaker’s fluid hand with a digital distraction dispenser. But the speaker herself has made a bargain with the machine, allowing it to capture her, so that she might in turn capture her own thoughts. The poem is caught in the trap of trying to be a more ethical cage, before finally coming to grips with the impossibility of coming to grips. What remains is the fantasy of flight. Writing in thought, as the poem tells it, entails writing on the verge of escape.
If J.H. Prynne was right, that “No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide head-on with the unwitty circus,” Zurawski’s work thrives by virtue of its formal collision with the docu-soap. Unifying the two modes of Tiniest Muzzle and Song of Freedom creates a central paradox that drives the collection. Language carries the imperative to capture, to store, to preserve. But what it portends to preserve is the experience of unending displacement and mobility. We find that “To be in a sentence […] is by nature to be passing through.”
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