Cleveland State Univ Poetry Center, 2011
Never let it be said that Zach Savich has been lazy. Not only is The Firestorm his third book of poems in as many years, but he is also the author of a chapbook (The Man Who Lost His Head, which appears as a section of The Firestorm) and a creative nonfiction meditation on art, titled Events Film Cannot Withstand. Reading the poems, one understands the reason for this profligacy; this is a mind perpetually alert, whose “actual eyes” cannot help but witness the poetry of football games, coffee grounds, and electric razors. This may also explain the titles’ manic undercurrent; nothing is off-limits, nothing is spared artistic attention. And yet, though they are handled with aesthetic rigor and efficiency, the poems in The Firestorm convey the fundamental ambivalence at the heart of such vision: of the artist faced with the choice between living life and expressing it.
The speaker of these poems is all too aware that the artist’s gift of close observation is insufficient compensation for the pain of perpetual estrangement from the world. Even the self can only be located using external markers: “I am whatever is between hat, / glasses, and beard, hitting a note toward you from various haggard positions —”. Any connection made with another person—”To be half in love is / already in love”—is already thwarted, “halved”, by aesthetic articulation: “we kiss like people in novels”. This distance from one’s subject, which in the past may have implied God-like authorial omnipotence, actually signals in the modern artist an alienation so severe that his actions in the world have no impact. In one poem, an English language student learns “Of Superman”, “he cannot hurt / may mean he does not / cause pain or feel it”; if one can neither feel nor cause pain, the most common of experiences, there is little hope for the rest of the spectrum.
Though the speaker himself may be alienated indefinitely, the ironic distance required for artistic creation allows Savich to discern the most delicate, almost imperceptible links between individually observed phenomena. The eye is both the foundation of empiricism and a notoriously flawed judge of reality: a certain pose may be “a gardener kneeling”, “proposing”, or “setting up a time-activated camera”, or even all three in poetic simultaneity. Visual uncertainty is the subject of a section titled “Ardoretum”, whose poems have such marvelously pseudo-philosophical titles as “A Painting Does Not Lead the Eye Anywhere, The Point Is We Stop There” and “Is Closing Your Eyes in a Claustrophobic Room Any Different from Closing Your Eyes in a Meadow?” In “The Eye is the Sexiest Thing to Look At”, vision, though slippery as language, is the only gauge of the contours of the environment:
The leaves go orange like a hole opening
in the knee of my jeans. The leaves break
into a single leaf. Bells in the square: no pattern,
just time. In the silent film, we measure the volume
of a flowerpot’s crash by how many pieces it breaks into.
Although The Firestorm is rife with images of disconnection, breaking, and the incomplete, the poet knows that human vision is capable only of capturing finite moments of infinite processes; what may appear broken may simply be in the midst of a transformation so subtle as to be imperceptible. “The curled vine iced”, though “frozen in motion”, had to have “grown steadily to that curling”; although we may not be able to detect the pattern of the bells in the square, they will reveal their order “in light of the eventual”. However, even if the modern world had patience for “the eventual”, which, arguably, it does not, we are doomed by our default human-scale measurements—”narratives, / economics, or theology”—of these vast temporal and physical processes (“The ice must be as thick as the distance / between eyes”; “the geologic” is reduced to a holy “triad: heat, pressure, time”), which at once allow us to approach their mysteries and, in the end, condemn us to ignorance. Even the poet, with his perspectival privilege, remarks that he has “forgotten if I am pulling the curtain open or closed” on his own small world of the poem; this fallen god is master of nothing. Although an awareness of constant change should at least be partially meliorative, it is not always a welcome reality: “Troubled now by transformation, / you into this me into that, / while my desire is steadiness”.
The poetic influences of The Firestorm are, fittingly, just as conflicted. Although Savich writes that “All we’ve done is variously revise / Leaves of Grass“, Rimbaud’s vision of destructive chaos presses against Whitman’s inclusive abundance: “The village woke and every word was hell // Hell hell hell hell hell // And every word they wrote was hell“. And yet The Firestorm cannot bring itself to the edge of either ecstasy or anguish. To whom must the modern poet look if neither the conviction nor the energy of Rimbaud or Whitman is available to him? Savich’s answer, in The Firestorm, is Samuel Beckett, whose despairing intelligence permeates these poems’ depictions of the absurd contemporary world. Savich even displays a kind of Beckettian wry humor: “No matter how crowded with tourists the Pantheon is, it is always pretty much deserted from about six-foot-three up”.
In light of Beckett’s creative futility, the title of this collection acquires a melancholy irony. There is more water and ice than fire and smoke in these poems; they may “construct [their] own weather”, but it belongs more to the limbo of a frozen landscape than to the immediacy of volcanic conflagration. The choice between expression and living is once again deferred. “I suppose I do believe in nothing,” a line that begins four of these poems, is a declaration of faith in the only certainty there is. As the collection’s epigraph taken from Beckett’s Malone Dies concedes, “I am content, necessarily, but not to the point of clapping my hands.”
Rachel Abramowitz  is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.