by Antonia Clark
WHAT GLORIOUS POSSIBILITIES
Kelsey Books, Aldrich Press, 2014
The first poem in Jim Zola’s aptly titled poetry collection, What Glorious Possibilities (Aldrich Press, 2014), is called “Blues.” And indeed, the poems in this book are studded with blue things: a sky blue Falcon, blue corn chips, a bright blue egg, a blue barn, the “night’s blue sigh,” “grandmother’s perfect blue perm,” and “blue blue flowers.” Of course, most of these images do not signal sadness. But there are plenty of blues, of one sort or another, in the book. And yet, the poem ends:
“. . . Big Blues
eat the little Blues. Deep below,
something joyful swims out of it all.”
This is a fitting preview, for indeed, though the poet leads us through confusion and melancholy, something joyful really does emerge from this collection, One cannot help but agree that every moment holds its hidden promise. Every life is a constellation of possibilities.
Many of the poems in this book deal with the realities of the everyday: home, family, the dailiness of life, its mundane preoccupations and uncertainties. At the same time, they remind us that there’s another realm ― that of emotion. And, too, always on the edge of consciousness, the unseen, the unknown, the unfathomable. In one poem, “you hear birds you can’t see.” In another, there are “dogs we never see that bark.” The speaker goes about his daily routines, doing what needs to be done, but cannot forget the confusion of human experience, the threats that the dark might hold. In “The Night Still Dark,” we read:
The leaves have drawn out
their dying, just as I
let myself linger.
I’m the Grumpy General,
barking orders about gloves
and hats. Putting on
a sock, my son forgets
what world he’s in. I can’t
forget. I keep notes
in my pockets.
The poems are about what we inherit and what we bequeath (especially from father to son) ― which are often very much the same things. The collection also includes some retellings of classic fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel, The Pied Piper, The Enchanted Pig) as well as the more exotic “The Bee-Bearded Man’s Only Son.”
Zola’s poems are sometimes quirky, sometimes a bit surreal. But always honest and searching. The language is fresh, the images concrete, unexpected, and often arresting. The poet’s attention shifts and settles on one image after another, something like the sunlight that he describes moving from object to object in a room,”setting fire to a dinged lampshade, loved books, the dog mid-twitch. . . .” Because of this, it’s easy to see the world from the narrator’s point of view. And of course, this kind of seeing leads to another kind: it lets us see within. Zola gives us a house of the imagination and lets us peer through the windows.
This speaker, like all poets, is in love with words and with naming ― our anchors to the real world. He names things. Children name things. In one poem (”The Ornithologist Leaves a Note”), the speaker keeps books by his bed ― a book on birds, and one on trees, on plants, on stars. In another (”Last Word of the Man Who Read Dictionaries”), the speaker loses one word after another. Word matter. It’s by way of language that we understand ourselves and our relation both to our loved ones and to the rest of humanity.
One of my favorite poems in the book is “How It Happens.” It reminds us that things can change in an instant ― but yes, unexpected joy can also swim out of that moment.
How It Happens
One night the world seems right
moon in place
lightly at the foot of our bed
By morning the faucet in the bathroom drips
it didn’t before
I resort to my usual tools
my phillips screwdriver
my red plumber’s wrench
my curses and pleas
This is the next to last straw
a broken lace on the shoe of madness
you laugh say
a cockroach can live for days
without its head
Then I’m tapping a tune on the pipes
and you are shimmying naked
down the hallway.
It’s often said that a good poem teaches the reader how to read it. One poem in particular ― “Under the Influence” ― gave me this feeling and, moreover, taught me something about reading the collection as a whole.
Under the Influence
A blowsy woman weaves parrots
and never smiles. Or if she smiles,
it is in the dark
of her lover’s hair like whiskey
and trouble, like loosely braided
love. There are gaps in this logic,
peeled back to reveal the circuits
we learn to trust, the road that curves
until we know without looking
until we are under it all,
the bramble of gears and blossom,
the secret maps, under the ground,
the place where all we fear turns
into water and then back
to what we believe.
These poems give us a sense of what’s “under it all.” Their images work together to create emotional textures that aren’t easy to pin down, glimpses into those aspects of experience that perhaps don’t have names ― which is why the poems are so necessary.
Jim Zola’s poems remind us that we’re all born into one life or another. We use what we’re given. We don’t understand it all, but we try to honor it and find our way as well as we can. Again and again while reading this collection, I heard echoes of Henry James: “We work in the dark ― we do what we can ― we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”