Alexandra Mattraw

Review of The Surfacing of Excess, by Arianne Zwartjes

(Eastern Washington University Press, 2010)

What is the shape of absence?  How is flight both a picture of the divine and a measure of God’s ability to “love only himself”?  In her poetry debut The Surfacing of Excess, winner of the 2009 Blue Lynx Prize, Arianne Zwartjes grapples with these questions, gushing for 87 pages that reference philosophers, mystics, poets, and mathematicians alike.  Excess may be an understatement, but surface, Zwartjes is not. 

The book’s core rests in a triangulation of three major topics: Flight, Geometry, and what I will call Love/Language/Beauty (all equitable). The dynamics of flight (and the inability for humans to sustain it) and the definitions of geometric figures (particularly the sphere) serve as explanatory anchors for beauty between the lover and her beloved.  Or, to be simpler, Zwartjes laments, “We could be winged but are not” ([11]).  The poems posit that in longing for flight, a brush with divinity, an escape from our mundane selves, we exist in a perpetual state of lack.  In this thirst for ascension we can also view a parallel to the desire for the beloved, assuming that in achieving flight we may also obtain love.  Yet Zwartjes integrates Plato and Carson, reminding us that owning beauty is a metaphysical impossibility, since love, like flight, depends on space and absence.  We will always, the poet infers, return to the ground.  In this examination then, Zwartjes faces other inevitable emotions: Affliction, the forlorn, the fact of falling (“I feel I have fallen”), both down from the sky in the Icarus sense and out of love ([Parts Of The Feather]).  We might even say her speakers fall out of the transcendent geometry of love that is now displaced: “I imagine you do the same but months since I’ve seen your face . . . I find pieces of you everywhere” ([16]).  In a 2010 reading at Tucson’s Casa Libre, Zwartjes revealed she wrote this book after the dissolution of a significant relationship, and that veiled grief is worked out in many of the poems.  Technical terminology that describes external, architectural space becomes a metaphor of the heart’s internal geometry.  The exactitude of this language explodes the tensions between desire for the object and its impossible obtainment.  Yet it is this very uncomfortable juxtaposition between “Knowledge” as the learned masters tell it and “Vision” as the emotive poet experiences it that pinpoints Zwartjes’ interests.  Despite all we claim to know in these texts that “map a world that is predictable and proportionate,” we cannot fully explain our inability to accept our own earthbound, wingless yearning ([14]).

The book is divided into nine sections— a nod to Dante’s hell, the womb, and the nine muses.  Four of these sections are “The Taxonomy of Flight.”  These singular, more breathless “Flight” poems serve as lyrical threads between the “Stiches” prose poems, previously published as a chapbook.  The “Stiches” series explores the geometric through fragmented and caesura laden lines, appropriately dislocating the reader by intermingling narrative references to family and love with definitions of phenomena such as “the sphere,” “the circle,” and “hyperbolic space.” 

In the “Stiches” poems especially, Zwartjes is fond of parentheses, run-on sentences, and asyntactic grammar, making her a challenge akin to Anne Carson, Karla Kelsey, and Andrew Zawacki (all of whom she acknowledges in her liner notes). Her parentheses act with multifarious, if sometimes distracting, functions: They allow for starts and stops in the poems, which mirror the inability for sustained flight or captured love.  They perform boundaries, fences, conditions, as well as ironic physical enclosures and emotional closure.  Sometimes they introduce theoretical elements (often italicized) from the likes of Weil and Rumi.  Other times they add intimate gestures, appearing as “internal worlds” in conflict with external reality: “For us (there is only trying), fence covered in snow and steaming with morning sun” and “In moments of pain it was easiest (here is your name) (hold open)” ([31] and [28]). 

Meanwhile, the “Flight” series, often projected from the voices of other writers, is the book’s most thematically and emotionally salient.  Zwartjes does well to set these more linear poems between the dense and ruptured “Stiches.”  [A Gallery of Names] sits at the book’s center, converging Zwartjes’ triangulation in tight prose blocks.  Accordingly, these poems are entitled “Parallel,” “Plane,” “Affliction,” “Sphere,” “Space,” “Flight,” “Eros,” “Forlorn,” and “Beauty.”  In these pieces, the speaker is the topic, personified.  For instance, in “Affliction”, “I” becomes a character who claims, “my mother loved me as yours did you.”  Such personification allows great reflection on our own self-made afflictions.  Zwartjes explains through Weil that affliction is “a kind of horror that submerges the whole soul.” Why, then, would we nurture our own pain, feeling motherly love for the fractious lack that consumes us?  These poems are especially engaging, if mind-crushing in the take-off-the-top-of-your-head Dickinson sense.

At times, despite the miraculous originality of this stitched excess, readers may wish for a less clinical tone.  On a first read, the scientific language, in packed succession, may weigh down what could be a more piercing “direct treatment of the object.”  Moreover, some might contest the familiar flight motif and its mythic overtones while wincing at the insistent namedropping.  Others may find the theoretic voices overbearing.  Arguably, the presence of so many other visionaries makes the lines feel too self-conscious and controlled—as if Zwartjes’ “I” wishes to hide instead of directly locating the personal and immediate.  As such, many poems feel most lovely when they carefully balance the scientific with the lyric.

All of this said, Zwartjes clearly intends to view the world through all these other voices, and she is also aware of her own tendency to skirt the “I” and “you.”  Her speaker admits, “At this point, the reader may object (where are you in all this) none of the lines add up straight” ([27]).  Although such poetics can be alienating when reading the “Stiches” and “[Gallery]” poems for the first time, a more concentrated read expands them wonderfully.  If Zwartjes’ theorems bleed out excessively, there is nothing haphazard about her craft.  She is not creating a collage from so many intelligent fragments as a wooing ploy (too easy) but sincerely sculpting them into a figure capable of the modern dislocation Eliot would applaud. While sometimes laborious to unpack, she has the power to punch readers with what I will call the synesthetic conceptual— one simple, conceptual sentence or phrase becomes a prismatic opening to a Pandora’s Box worth of interpretation.  In “Stiches [43]” for instance, she writes, “truth is only manifest in nakedness and (nakedness is death).”  There are several levels of meaning here.  If we strip ourselves of “I,” our locating identity, then we are all (truthfully) everyone, or more frighteningly, no one (dead).  Yet if we strip away our false and socially created body, we also become pure soul (truth and beauty).  Zwartjes seems to channel Keats and Stevens in this concept, brilliantly capturing the very love and beauty her plaintive speakers fail to hold.

The “Flight” poems feel the most free and balanced in the book.   “Bones Of The Wing” renders an imagined, dramatized conversation that pits the logical voice of “Plato” against the love-torn voice of “Calvino.”  This surreal Calvino character sees himself as a kind of fused Icarus figure who embodies both he and the lover he has abandoned.  The conversation is disjointed but bizarrely connected.  Neither Plato nor Calvino has answers to the book’s central questions because, of course, there are no satisfactory ones in Zwartjes’ triangulation (except perhaps the act of the poem itself).  The dialogue’s linear fluidity, as well as its emotive honesty, relieves much of the tension the “Stiches” poems build.  Between Plato’s metaphorically loaded physics (“Emptiness is as concrete as <solid bodies>) and the striking, raw regret of the “fallen” Icarus/Calvino, Zwartjes allows the emotional gravitas some other poems avoid.  The characters’ polarity suggests the sad absurdity of thinking we could understand why we do the things we do in love: “I flew too close . . . I burned her off me.  Why did I do it you ask; would that I knew . . . I knew— oh God.”  Zwartjes suggests we might be able to explain the properties of flight but not our destructive desire for it.

Likewise, “Types Of The Feather” is the most lyrically moving poem of the project.  From the voice of Rumi, Zwartjes’ long, image-rich prose lines free themselves from the clinical, bursting into gorgeous imagery and dervish repetition.  The result is a breathless, opening poem: “I am falling up/ into the bowl of sky and turning turning the violet sail of this air.”  Here, the speaker is a defiant Rumi/Icarus who sustains flight through the language of poetry.  Earth and sky are inverted, making life divine.  The visual violet (sunset, sunrise) and geometric bowl (a sphere in so many other poems) rest with the tactile “sail”, while offering the beautiful paradox of “falling up” instead of “falling out of” love (the sky).  The synesthetic conceptual also continues in lines like “dark pillow, the grapeskin of ego, breaks, I am pouring and the emptiness after.”  The fragile ego of the modern self becomes the thin bloody skin of a red grape, and one thinks of Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” the duality of Dionysus, and even Persephone’s pomegranate—all asserting the intertwined nature of joy and pain, heaven and hell.  In addition, Zwartjes interestingly infers that though the ego is a comforting pillow or crutch that we rest our minds upon, it is in fact only as thin-skinned as a pillow’s sheet, capable of giving us deceptive dreams.  Similarly, Zwartjes asks, “Who says the sun nudes itself of light,” as if the sun strips itself when shining, revealing, as dictated earlier, a nakedness that is truth shining out.  But asked as a question, the poet complicates this idealization, suggesting the sun the may not actually offer us enlightenment, but a dark vulnerability instead.  Such fresh, striking imagery allows Zwartjes a place in 21st century lyric poetry, meeting Juliana Spar’s expectation that “Lyric is by definition innovative” (American Women Poets in the 21st Century). 

Ultimately, Zwartjes describes this aching for flight and love as best pictured through a sphere: “in that space of desire/ between lover and beloved       is where god spins” (“Types Of A Feather”).  In the book’s clincher, Zwartjes concludes, “If love is about edges we have become spheres” (“Parts Of The Wings”).  If love is spherical and cyclical, turning beyond our control, then life is finally rounded, slippery, repetitive, and perfect, but only in its uncertainty.  Can we live on the edge of a sphere or are we only consumed by it?  A sphere (love) is also a world then—one that overwhelms as it renders us through longing.  In “Sphere,” Zwartjes writes that [love’s] “circumference is       everywhere center nowhere.” The sphere becomes an “I” who encapsulates love: “[I have] no edges I am a continuous self . . . spin me you’ll find I never end . . .” According to the poet, the love-sphere can never be fixed or owned, as it exists everywhere and nowhere at once.  We are left in inside its mercurial space, simultaneously wanting to take flight in escape while always destined to return to its surface. 

In the end, Zwartjes embraces all these contraries, rationally offering no closure: the known relays all we can’t know, flight relies on dull gravity, and love depends on lack.  She agrees, “There must be no consolation,” as “We search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.  The delight is in the reaching for…the instinct towards flight.”  These delightful poems accomplish just that.