Reviewed By Kylan Rice
- Black Ocean (2018)
- 104 pages
The poets, having achieved immortality at last, don’t know what to do with themselves. In this way, they are just like the rest of us.
The long advent of the Anthropocene, or that epoch wherein humanity intervenes on the earth as a geological force, has inaugurated in us a special kind of immorality. Take the unthinkable timescales of our “hyperobjects”; according to Timothy Morton, “a hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism.” The spatiotemporal dimensions of hyperobjects are beyond me, yet I interact with them every day. They are my inheritance. I have inherited immortality, and it will be the death of me.
The Anthropocene has worked a deep revision on the Bible verse, too: no longer does it go, “What God hath wrought,” but rather, “What the human hath wrought.” Or what hath the human? I mean, what hath she? Hath she coffee in her Styrofoam cup? Zach Savich, in his new book, Daybed, rightly points out that “the coffee stays warmest longest when I drink it.” Just so, his book unfolds in the manner and tone of a neo-Prufrock, through whom T. S. Eliot vocalized over a hundred years ago:
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons . . .
Savich transposes Eliot’s particular, particulate, boring immortality into a contemporary context. In Daybed, Savich or his speaker knows every day. In fact, all he knows is day; he dwells in day’s realm. Thus he opens his collection with the epigraph by Blake: “But does a Human Form Display / To those who Dwell in Realms of day.” If Blake’s epigraph is meant to signify the central struggle of Daybed (and I believe that it does), Savich’s own crisis may be characterized as one of alienation from the human, or the “human form,” though in the broad light of day. Savich dwells in an uncanny world, but all the same, one framed by and occupied with such daily objects as windows and vases. Indeed, Savich returns often to both of these objects. His windows suggest enclosure, interiority, distance from the external world. His vases suggest, in this case, convalescence (á la Sylvia Plath)—another kind of distance from the world. To be sure, Savich speaks from “in” the world, but no matter how hard he tries, he can’t quite be “of” it, possessed by it.
But he does try to be “of.” Daybed opens with an idyllic echo from James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” in which the poet, after observing butterflies, green shadows, and floating chicken hawks from the vantage of a hammock, a kind of daybed, concludes that he has “wasted” his life. In Daybed, though, Savich doesn’t even bother stringing his hammock up:
I rest my hammock on the grass
Grew up able to read only when very aroused
Could we be reading the same line now
Or say this is heaven
And there is no heaven
So only this remains
By my reading, it is as if Savich picks up where Wright leaves off, rising from his hammock in order to claim his wasted life for what it is—that is, to call it good, to call it a day. Indeed, in Savich’s book, Day must be called a day to exist as such. The last three lines of Daybed’s opening poem signal the linguistic, or significant, resignation that occurs throughout: just as for Wright, there is no heaven in Savich’s poem, but at least there is “this” that remains—which might refer to the “this-ness” of things, or to reference itself. Perhaps linguistic reference is all we have. Reference is what heaven there is—our utopia, our no-place. Of course, on a day-to-day basis we live in language, referring to the world using its utopian terms. Perhaps this is what makes it so difficult to dwell in the daylit world, limned by language as it is.
In the absence of heaven, only This remains. Savich seeks to inhabit, then, the immanent, the terrestrial, the daily; indeed, though it is “important also to imagine paradise,” “one tires of the beyond.” Fatigue, exhaustion, and repose play a central place in this book that seeks to imagine “this-ness” with such restless abandon:
Lying on the daybed, with vases
Like one too old to rake, waiting for wind
Winnowing is worth more than wit
The forest burns itself whenever it wants
It’s not dramatic, birds crashing up from the ashes
Their population doubles whenever they want
Reposeful, Savich registers the corresponding carelessness of the natural world. Here, Nature—finches and forests—is less brutish as it is pristinely agential. All the same, the nature of Nature’s desirous agency is threateningly amoral: it burns and doubles whenever it wants. The world whirls and burns and doubles around Savich’s speaker as he lies sprawled on his daybed, sick, with vases around. Such a juxtaposition foregrounds the vertiginous, uncanny sense of the nearby faraway that shapes the incurred internal geography of Savich’s book.
The repose, resignation, and carelessness in Daybed correlates to a consciousness of fate, or inevitability. The effect of this conjunction disempowers the poet, while enshrining him in his own timelessness:
Gateways without gates, just a trellis, the stone path
I find whatever I take is a vitamin
Window planters hold nothing, they are for lease
Can it be the last one the indefinitely lasting one
Park in the middle of whatever this is
Meadow is a duration, barrow is
Yet to never be the voice expounding
I turned the corner of this page a year ago, I smooth it
Though it may not obtain at first on a casual read, Savich is working with some of the bedrock themes of Poetry as a long, historic tradition: namely, Immortality and Fate. His sense of subjective longevity is healthful: “whatever I take is a vitamin.” But that longevity infects at the level of all quanta: whatever is last in a series is last indefinitely—that is, lastness (lateness) lasts forever. In this passage, Savich compounds Immortality and Fate so that immortality feels late and fated. Just so, an eternal life becomes a disempowered life, a bare life.
It is a life stripped bare, having been overwrought, overreached, hyper-objectified:
Should we place the flowers behind or in front of the curtains?
So you will have to open the curtains to see the flowers and
There’s a good day
A good day—taking the form of a vase of flowers—had to be put there first. The eternal realms of Day, thus made, reduce the dweller to barest, barely there this-ness, or here-ness, or life. Daily dwelling is deftly rendered in Daybed as a deathless struggle for survival, which is that struggle to see the human where the human stands at noon in its own shadow (or vice versa). To survive, Savich struggles “to have something to tell” in order to see:
Or if I listen as you, or endeavor
to have something to tell so I see
the neighborhood florist doesn’t have
the most beautiful greenhouse.
the most beautiful greenhouse
a neighborhood florist has.
Then I have survived for this.
The standards play themselves
one note a day.
Though it unfolds in carelessness, as though from among the tangled sheets of a daybed, Savich’s book ends by invoking a deep sense of bondedness, or responsibility—a responsibility to attend to the world in language so as to let the world be. Daybed is a carefully careless book: Savich decides to dwell within the nearby faraway of days as a way of opening up, or awakening the world and those who live in it to new possibility—that is, the possibility of being, just being. For being is enough—sufficient, and so, bare in its bareness. A tautology, true—though, as ever, “birds in the hedge / are just birds in the hedge.” Savich concludes his book with a tender reminder of ontolinguistic sufficiency, one overheard from the aubade of being, that one endlessly sung, one note a day:
Beloved, you don’t need to know the language
to know it’s language.
Or once a bird sang in the boughs
and you swore a flock lives in the boughs.
What there is has its is-ness in language. Savich invites us to make the most, or more, of it, just as a tautology doubles that of which it speaks, even while affirming that thing’s existence, its beyond-ness. Savich’s is a dizzying logic. He has to speak it lying down.
Kylan Rice has poetry, prose, and book reviews published in the Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly, West Branch, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere.