By Reason of Breakings by Andrew Zawacki
University of Georgia Press, 2002
According to the hyperbole contained on the back cover of this fine-looking book, I was about to embark on a wonderful journey through 'widlerness littered with petrochemical and astrophysical artifacts (sic) -' and with 'the sweep of its cadences, its powers of invention, its amazing subtle intelligence' — amongst other things — set to allow my 'soul' to 'squint' at 'meticulously recorded landscapes'. Unfortunately, this book as a whole, did no such thing for me. A shame, really, as the book was 'winner of the contemporary poetry series competition'. Just whose, I do not know, as there was no further illumination of this fact.
Had I bothered to check the liner notes at the rear of the book before starting it, I would have discovered that Zawacki's effort is No. 61 (in alphabetical order), and edited by one Bin Ramke. I found this interesting when I finally arrived at that point, and it is something I shall return to during this review, as I believe editors play an important role in bringing cohesion to an author's work. I also found the dedications, acknowledgements (to other poets/poems) and explanatory notes might have been better placed at the front of the book, not least to have quelled the 'where have I heard that before, that sounds familiar' feeling.
The book is divided into three parts, introduced by the poem entitled 'Vespers', a fair indicator that this book was a late afternoon or nighttime read, if one were to take the title literally. 'Vespers' worked well for me, and I settled back, feeling like I was about to navigate some interesting territory. By poem number 11 of Part One, I found myself pleading with Zawacki to talk to me—not with clever word dissociation games (albeit, using easily understood language) that gave me the uncomfortable feeling Zawacki used a thesaurus of synonyms and antonyms to construct this section — but with more of the poetic flow only hinted at thus far.
Poem 12 ('Agrapha') changed everything for me. Here was the poet hitting his straps; it is a damn fine poem and I was heartened but, disappointingly, the final two poems of Part One brought this section crashing back to earth with a resounding thud. It left me wondering why the poems were placed where they were. Surely a book should lead off with a strong suite of work, to entice the reader further along the poet's path. For this, I lay the blame solely at the feet of the editor.
Part Two contained sixteen poems, identified by use of Roman numerals. I devoured this section so quickly that I had to go back and force myself to read through it again, slowly, and then again, for a third time, to fully absorb what I felt to be some of the best poetry I've read in quite some time. This is where the poet really worked for me. This is the type of poetry I enjoy most of all — something to sink one's teeth into, something to make the reader think.
Part Three comprised of sixteen poems. 'Postcard', the first poem, succeeded wonderfully on a number of levels — not least in its layout. After this, the book began to fall away again although, thankfully, not as badly as in Part One. This section contained some good poems, some okay poems and some downright ordinary poems. There are five poems here, all entitled 'Ascension Proviso', all five lines per page; at the end of the fifth, I questioned why. Apart from filling pages — and wasting paper — I felt 'Ascension Proviso' would have been more effective as one poem in five parts. Yet another anomaly of editorship, methinks.
Something else I found to be a distraction was the inclusion of seven poems entitled 'Slipknot', ensconced in Parts One and Three. Only one of these poems worked for me, and again I speculated as to why. If there had been three or four of these poems only, perhaps for purposes of comparison, then I would have thought, 'fair enough'. I can fathom that rationale — but seven? Sorry. That is too many, and too much of a distraction: yet another brickbat for the editor.
Zawacki also has a case to answer regarding one poem in particular, 'Velocity among the Ruins of Angel Republic'. A three-part poem, it is extremely moving and emotive, its subject matter having a profound effect on the head, the heart, and the soul. However, the poem was, for me, 'murdered' in part two by use of the commonly known collective noun for crows. I felt this to be unimaginative, unpoetic, uninspired. Most definitely the editor should have put that foot down and said 'no'.
As it began, the book ends with a single poem separate from the sum parts. 'Ampersonata', a list poem (each line begins with '&'), lifts the book to a triumphal closure of sorts, something I was glad to discover, as the book needed it.
I have some other quibbles, but perhaps that's all they are, personal quibbles. Perhaps you, as a reader, should go and find out for yourself whether or not I'm being too harsh on Mr Zawacki because, when all is said and done, I still think the book is worth reading. The good outweighed the not-so-good, and the poet does possess a very good turn of phrase, combined with a keen eye. I look forward to seeing more of his poetry in years to come.
Martin Downey has been writing poetry and poetry-related material since the early 1990s. He is the author of two collections of poetry and has had over 100 individual poems published right across Australia and eight overseas destinations in print form alone. In 2003, he was elected to the Committee of Melbourne Poets Union Inc. and is currently working on his third collection of print poetry, as well as a poetry/spoken word CD.