Something About
Andrena Zawinski
Blue Light
ISBN Number: 9781421891361

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

          Readers who pick up Something About, Andrena Zawinski’s latest poetry collection, will want to pay attention to the painting on the cover, “Ophelia in the Lotus Garden (who is yet to appear…)” by Jane Hyland; for once, a book’s cover actually has volumes to say about the work within it. Hyland’s exquisite painting is an explosion of color that takes in the viewer while simultaneously jarring him or her; it almost seems to be too much. Yet, on closer examination, the bright colors take on clear meaning. The swash of orange, ochre, and purple across the top becomes a meticulously detailed sunset among high stratocumulus clouds. The sea beneath recedes into the hazy distance where day’s end and water blur. At the forefront, lotus leaves detailed down to every vein, every shadow. Cradled in between them, a ripple: Could this trouble be a herald to Shakespeare’s heroine? If we stare at the painting long enough, will a hand appear, or perhaps a wisp of hair?

          I dissect “Ophelia in the Lotus Garden” so thoroughly not just because I think it is a stunning work, but also because it is a perfect metaphor for Zawinski’s writing. At first glance, or perhaps first read, her work is a wash of color: image after image, description after description, stanzas thick as oatmeal and lines that seem to break only because the page’s edge forces them to. In other words, it can be a little overwhelming. But, if the reader sits patiently with the book, reads and rereads with an eye for detail and story, Zawinski’s lines will reveal the same hidden depths that Hyland’s painting does. In our fast-paced, fast-food world of half-hour TV dramas in which everything, even poetry, has to get to its point with lightning speed so boredom won’t set in, reading something that demands pertinacity and re-examination can be as refreshing as a drink of water—or the clear blue water of Hyland’s painting.

          Zawinski loves words, loves their complexity, and loves, I think, encouraging her readers to turn them over and over like stones until they have mapped and memorized their power and the pictures they can evoke. In many ways she is a poet who works in visuals and sight, sometimes to the exclusion of all other senses. In “My Mother’s Legs,” for example, she recreates her relationship with her mother in miniature by offering several visual memories of seeing her mother’s legs while her mother danced, scrubbed the floor, and stood on tip-toe to kiss her father’s cheek. In “Unknown Man Dies on Street,” Zawinski similarly recreates a young man’s sudden death as he disembarks from a streetcar, doing so almost entirely through a visual depiction of the event:

He was a young man, freshly shaven, skin turned ashen.
He was flesh, bone, tracks, cement, a crowd of strangers
circling round, some family off somewhere
about to get the news.
The streetcar screeched to a halt, sirens close behind
as he lay grade to the street there, and I took him into the dark
recesses of my mind—into a grave, worm eaten, bones
picked clean, bleach-white as roadkill.

          In many ways, I often find myself equating Zawinski to a painter, to the point that I wonder if she has a background in art or art history. Several of the poems in the book’s first few sections are inspired by art pieces or by entire exhibitions, as Zawinski mentions in her author’s notes at the book’s end. The striking “Dreamboat” comes from Magritte’s Philosophy of the Boudoir as well as images of iconic beauty Marilyn Monroe.; “Impressions en Plein Air” beautifully juxtaposes the work of the famous Impressionist painter with the poet’s view of Paris as seen from the window of an airplane. Likewise, the breathtaking “The Largeness of Flowers” is modeled upon not only a quotation from Southwestern artist Georgia O’Keefe but also an exhibition of her work. Here, the speaker enters “a gallery garden” of the painter’s work to escape an unusually cold day. The poem is, alas, too long to quote in full, but a few stanzas will provide a general idea of its scope and of Zawinski’s technique.

Like you [O’Keefe] I love to linger inside the bud and fold of color
upon those petal palettes, whole continents of blooms swelling
in a garden party of the grand. I think as I look in, how can you say
there is no sex in the fiery poppy, no birth in its blood rich petals,
no thought of death inside the deep dark center, no drama
in these big beauties that dizzy and dazzle as any first love might.

You say these flowers mean nothing more than their own largeness,
lines spiraling in upon themselves and taking their natural course.
What starts beneath the soil line appears above the ground
then plucked by you, you bequeath them to these gallery walls.
On my wall, your wild iris blazes and poppies swell like bodies,
like any love at first sight might in a new found intimacy.

          Of course, poems of length and extended imagery can also suffer several weaknesses, messiness and convolution the chief among them. Sometimes Zawinski falls prey to these weaknesses—not only because of her love of exhaustive description but also because of her line breaks. Of course, long lines, even very long lines, are by no means cardinal sins. If anything, I wish more poets today reveled in length, as Zawinski does. Yet, sometimes lines containing several actions, several descriptions or several gerunds work better when they are broken up, if not edited down.

          Take, for example, these stanzas from “Stuck Inside,” a poem which appears early in the collection:

I want to hold you close to me in this poem
like huckleberry and fern do the mossy trout stream bank,
eucalyptus perfuming air whipping the shoreline highway,
berms puddle in dewy light. But I am crouched inside
a dark corner of somewhere I left behind,
my neighbor’s voice rumbling on the consonant strung tongue
of her Old Country, recounting how she hid with her mother
from soldiers in a grain pipe on some abandoned farm
back when the earth shook and bombs fell
in whistles and booms from above and behind.

I want to wend you with these words
through this shapeshifting landscape past a windbreak
of cypress at the next turn, hand you a nosegay
of seaside daisies blushed pink beside the water’s edge.
But back in Pittsburgh, a flurry of noisy night birds
Breaks loose again on orthodox church bell peals,
The hillside an echo of women singing a capella
At the untended grave of my mother, the pinwheel
I propped there for a new year paling in spring light,
Blades heavy with the weight of coins I pasted on,
Pennies I found tossed in my path by some gods
Of good fortune.

          While Zawinski’s penchant for description is often one of her greatest strengths, at times, as in the above poem and others, such as “Night Watch” and “Bittersweets for Camellia” (a piece which I otherwise admired), her lines become a little too full, causing the reader to veer off course, occasionally losing her or his bearings.

          Perhaps this is why Zawinski is at her strongest when she writes in more structured forms, such as the pantoum (“Against the Wind” and “I Have Seen Terezin”), the villanelle (“The Narrative Thread”), and the sonnet (the collection’s titular piece). Although Zawinski greatly modifies this last form, keeping neither its rhyme scheme nor its iambic scansion, she nonetheless keeps the basic rule of ten beats per line. And this limitation makes the poem (here reproduced in full) soar:

Something about these little song sparrows,
their avian tongues and throaty chortles,
the buzzy twittering floundering air
just outside the steamy bedroom window.

Something about the rain, the way it clucks
its testy tongue against the glass a blur
with the setting sun’s seductive passion.
Something about these sprightly singers.

Something about the way they tuck themselves
inside their wing bars devoted to feathers.
Something about the heart here pinned inside,
The tick of it, sky so blue, nimbus moon.

Something about this perch beside the pane
to watch day nestle in a moody moonlight.

          Here, Zawinski controls her line expertly, and through controlling it creates not only a strong rhythm but also imagery that is striking without being spare, suggestive without being overwhelming.

          Something About is a solid collection that does not shy away from length and weight, or from the idea that more is, in fact, more—an idea of which I approve. Its excellent poems outweigh its lesser pieces, which are nonetheless bold and worthy. The book is best suited, I think, to readers who enjoy long work with a strong visual sense and to those who are interested in Western poets (though born in Pittsburgh, Zawinski lives in San Francisco). I would also strongly recommend the book to poets who are just beginning to develop their craft. Zawinski’s attention to detail and her refusal to carve her poems into short, easily digested one-page works will teach them much in the way of image construction and risk-taking.

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