Review of Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians
143 Pages, $18
Wave Books, 2014
A woman sings “Hey Jude” with a voice like weeping willow branches in warm wind. I am ten years old: still new on this earth. I am with my parents in a parking garage after a Mariners game. The woman’s voice echoes past concrete pillars and falls like rain on the concrete floors. The Mariners lost, but this woman makes beauty ex chaos, ex sadness.
I like The Pedestrians because Rachel Zucker is not afraid to be vulnerable. I suppose this is inherent to the kind of poetry people say she writes—confessional—but Zucker’s poems hit me with a force that others’ have not. She names and confronts different and difficult facets of what it is to be in relationship with the self and with intimate others. For instance, this prose (poem? prose-poem?) in the first half of the book, Fables (a book unto itself within The Pedestrians), speaks volumes about the speaker’s relationship with her husband:
…but stopped, knowing from his face that she’d made a mistake.
“What are you waiting for?” he snarled.
He had a snake tongue then. She saw it slip back into his mouth and felt the sting of his fangs, the poison of his disappointment. It was always there like the creek behind the house—sometimes inaudible, sometimes burbling through the quiet nights—always, no matter how dry the season: a carved-out trench where nothing good could grow.
Zucker names the dysfunction in the speaker’s marriage, even as she includes a poem about the speaker wanting to be touched by her husband in the same way he delightedly tickles one of their sons. Zucker is vast enough to contain multitudes, to “be filled with hatred for the husband she love[s] so dearly.” In “pedestrian” the speaker wonders why she doesn’t live “in Maine or have more children or fewer” or how she feels about her “parents or poetry.” Zucker is confessional—honest—in that she bears witness to the deep ambivalence that marks our lives. We choose; in choosing, we exclude a world of possibilities; Zucker’s poems are fraught with that weight. Sometimes it’s bearable, and the narrator of the fables sits, “thinking of what it mean[s] to be alive in one location instead of another, at one moment of time instead of another, to be one kind of animal rather than another.” But other times the speaker “listen[s] to the muffled sound of that kind of thinking while she make[s] a clicking noise on her keyboard.” Let he or she who has never dissociated throw the first stone.
And now the earth is wet, the windows bleared with rain so the headlights blur on I-5. I pretend to be asleep in the warm car. My parents speak softly in the front. In the left lane, another SUV paces us: inside, a mother, a father, and their son. His nose is too big for my taste but I imagine trading places with him, having his maybe perfect life because mine, I feel, is full of ruin and disappointment. I wish to start all over with what I know now. I wish to become a baby and do it all over again. If you had given me a chance to begin my life again in that moment, if you had given me a chance to flee the depression I had no name for, I would have taken it. Would have erased my story.
Zucker’s work, though often unpunctuated, retains a sense of narrative. Our brains process experience, make memories, in terms of story; we perceive sight and imagination almost exactly the same. I found myself thankful that Zucker’s poems were knowable as stories—everyday, pedestrian—and as a series of pieces in a broader story, each speaking to the others. Take, for instance, the last two poems of the collection, “resort dream” and “_ _ _.” In the former, a war breaks out in the country where the speaker is a tourist. She escapes with a plane-full of other people, but the plane crashes. The stewards misdirect people to the wrong exits because not everyone can get out alive. The speaker comes across a man pushing a stroller and, having found out the stewards’ scheme, points the man to the “real exit.” The speaker sees that the man’s baby is disfigured but realizes she doesn’t care. “I don’t care about anything or anyone,” Zucker concludes. “That’s why we will sur- / vive. I have never been so powerful.” Aside from the dramatic tension between “resort dream” and the conclusion of Fables, where the speaker realizes “There [is] no going away” from her loved ones, no way not to care”—“resort dream” has an internal dialogue with the following (and last) poem, “_ _ _.” It addresses the reader directly and demands that we consider the nature of the author-reader relationship:
I’d run at you
with readied spear but
the spears are rungs
in a metal fence spiked
against settling birds
my mind is made up
of you what would you
have of me?
The demand is clear, and the complete reversal of power is striking. Tension and ambivalence lurk in the gulf between the speaker’s sense of power and her complete dependence on the reader: “my mind is made up / of you,” Zucker writes in a flourish of line break and syntax. She doesn’t just confront the necessity of our presence—she’s also asks us to consider the danger of relationship. The “mind” of Zucker that we encounter here is made up of us—we could get it all wrong. Violence and pain are real and likely. Just as Zucker lets us in on real relational difficulties between her and her family, so she invites us to move toward relationship with herself. What else should poetry do?
My therapist tells me, It sounds like you had very little self inside you. In clinical terms I’d call that depression. Do you still think about wanting to start over? I say, Yes. She asks, Have you considered medication? I say, Yes, but I won’t take it. She sighs, says, find intimacy with people who bring out your best self, and, learn to soothe and have kindness for yourself. But sometimes there isn’t anyone around who will or can be what I need—me included. I forget the way. And in those moments, the work of authors like Rachel Zucker is more than poetry—it is a human being, vulnerable to empathy and relationship. It is communion, with knives. I open and open—am undone, remade.