Originally self-published as a handmade and made-to-order book in 1996, Jan Zwicky's brilliant Songs for Relinquishing the Earth (88 pages, $12.95 paper) was subsequently reprinted by Brick Books late last fall after the word-of-mouth demand became too much for her to keep up with. The volume is physically published the way her writing works: elegant and understated, with a clear strength coming through as a result. In a collection (Zwicky's fourth) that spans life, love, music, and philosophy, her writing reminds me of why I write, of what I want to accomplish in short, sharp lines.
Zwicky's is a thinking lyric, with a coherent and complex philosophical musicality:
It would be as well at the outset to admit
how even to have said this much
is to have failed.
She has the ability to get to the core of the matter in the fewest words.
An apology, first: I didn't guess
the moodiness my middle years
would bring, unschooled as I was
in the varieties of frustration.
You were right: stupidity
surrounds us, and our own
splits the skull most sharply.
("Beethoven: Op. 95")
In pieces such as "Kant and Bruckner: Twelve Variations", written on the "number and sort of echoes in the lives" of the two men, Zwicky shows how she is able to write through and not merely around her subjects: "we cannot touch a hair/without affecting all the rest". I like, too, how she can shift so easily from one idea to the next, from thinking to sheer sincerity of domestic life, or to the place where she is, where all that exists in life and poetry is fodder and fits, making up parts of the complete whole. Zwicky's poems are built of and respond to the world in long breaths. There is a continuity from one to another in both form and content, in ways that other works miss, making fragments where breaks don't need to be, or missing the poetry already there.
Mornings after rain, the mind wakes
dewy, tender-bad news, miscalculations
piled behind it like a shelf of badly-folded blankets.
Only in fairy tales,
or given freakish luck, does the wind
rise suddenly and set you down where everything
is safe and loved and in its place.
This is what makes Zwicky's work so strong: that clear completeness, that casual and calculated comfort in the brain and turn of phrase.