Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Empire

By Tracy Zeman

Reviewed By Alyse Bensel

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Empire is “a shattered sequence” that dismantles settler logic and the ideological underpinnings of manifest destiny on the American landscape. Acknowledging the destruction of pre- and post-colonial American land as a consequence of whiteness, this collection employs inherited form—most notably the sonnet—to demonstrate this perpetual haunting as cultural and environmental erasure. The poems in Tracy Zeman’s intertextual atlas ask: Who gets to act as cartographer? Who is permitted to occupy un/marked spaces? Interweaving texts from political and artistic figures, ranging from Thomas Jefferson through Bon Iver, Zeman evokes how violence and grief are inextricably part of the landscape.

The formal conceits of the sonnet undergird much of Empire, although in ghostly form, where within the form the entirety of history is simultaneously enacted upon the landscape. The collection’s opening sonnet sequence “Grass for Bone” encompasses such vastness. While these sonnets are fourteen lines and contain echoes of rhyme and meter, they never settle into a fixed pattern, and, most poignantly, resist the impulse toward the expected volta. The opening poem in the sequence exists in contradictions: “you the figure / of crouched skeleton under gaze / how bounded the boundless / new area of contestation.” Through this act of perception, the layers of flesh are peeled away, as is the feeling of endlessness of the prairie. These juxtapositions and contradictions seep into the second sonnet, where “bodies boiled in lye then scraped clean” fade into “a stand of pale orchids no longer.” Time fails to operate according to formal (white) logic.

But what is most compelling about Zeman’s use of the sonnet is its ability to formally compress. Like sedimentary layers, these poems possess a density in time, scope, and space, where history is resurrected as it continues onward. The human and animal, living and nonliving actors, all occupy space within the form:

water clinging to bluestem
grass clinging to wind & sun
an ache in the bone a litany in negative
we stand at the river’s edge to watch
the fish swallow what’s left
of you

In the span of these sonnets, the world is viewed from both the micro and macro, the personal and the nonpersonal, the singular and collective. Through such vast moves, these poems are not so much concerned with building a grand narrative so much as breaking it apart. Empire acts as an anti-narrative, where human and natural history coincide and coexist simultaneously through each poem’s layering of forms of action and actors.

Much of Empire functions in the elegiac mode, where all are grieved in equal measure. These poems chronicle irreparable violence enacted on people, the land, and animals, all rooted in the impulse to conquer, record, and collect. In “Solitary Branches & Small Leaves” the speaker acknowledges how manifest destiny can only exist if the landscape is considered empty: “it’s important to forget while constructing / a nation   a hybrid space / a man dead in the road left.” This concept is further reinforced in “Star or Plow,” where the desires of white men outstrip the needs of others, when “Jefferson’s enumerators sent west to populate / his drawing room   his science of specimen & capture // Of geometry democracy steel steam / seed & theft   for the good of us all.” The twisting of ideas like common good and wilderness are further confounded and exposed in “Plum Blossoms at Yellow Dusk”: “rock  tree  burial   she said / ‘for wilderness to exist / the landscape first had to be eradicated.’” This movement between a tethered lyric impulse and the rhetoric of empire is dissonant, uncomfortable, and necessary.

A record both bound and unbound by convention through its usage and eschewing of formal constraints, these poems deny readers any easy resolution. The cataloguing of violence continues alongside the settler descendants’ need to forget, like in “Empire of Grass,” wherein the speaker proclaims, “we’ve no interest in the past / vines wrapped about our waists / our wrists & ankles   threadless slag,” in which denial and physical reality confront each other. The past further forces itself into the present, such as the “Wasp’s nest found inside a skull / the tiny clay pot of the mud dauber” in “Grass for Bone.” The land will eventually take everything back, even amidst unspeakable violence (written as “bodies decaying in the hedgerows”). But this history remains, and the remembering and grieving begin anew.

Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things, a poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, 2020), and three chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry International, and West Branch. She is the Poetry Editor for Cherry Tree and teaches at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.