The Pedestrians, by Rachel Zucker. Seattle, Washington: Wave Books. 160 pages. $18.00, paper.
I came of age during the heyday of the compact disc, and one of the highlights of that era was the release of a “double album.” 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me comes to mind. Fans debated whether the discs should be heard separately as stand-alone albums or as a single album. No matter the answer to that question, debates over which disc was better always ensued. Divided into two stylistically distinct sections, Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians is likely to invite similar discussions. “Fables,” the first section, contains five longish prose poems, and “The Pedestrians” contains a mix of lineated poems, prose poems, and epigrammatic poems. Each section even carries its own dedication. However, the collection is thematically consistent, and every page offers stunning lines. Throughout The Pedestrians, the speaker seems to search for a sense of wholeness, a complete “I,” even as she “wonder(s) if / (she) actually (has) a self.” The speaker is and is not, has and has not, does and does not. She can neither get far enough away from nor close enough to herself. She is harried and frazzled, and “she want(s) to make something out of peacefulness but worrie(s) that peacefulness (is) antithetical to makefulness.” While peacefulness may well be antithetical to “makefulness,” in The Pedestrians making seems to provide some kind of peace, however finite it is.
In “Fables,” the speaker desires to be elsewhere. The third-person narration and distant, detached tone of the poems turns ordinary scenes of travel and family life into fables. “The Other City,” which seems to be Paris, begins, “One summer they decided to take their children to a faraway city that was completely unlike the city in which they lived.” However, after the novelty of “peaches that taste like peaches” wears off, the woman finds “the whole notion of dissimilitude (is) illusory,” concluding, “that this city, so unlike her city, was exactly like her city and that everyone in her city was exactly like everyone in this city and that they were all animals and that animals can only be animals.” If everything is the same, then there is no escape, no exit. Furthermore, the woman seems to suffer from akrasia. Her mother invites her to see a “renowned Buddhist monk,” but she says no. Even after her mother pleads with her, saying, “It would mean a lot to me,” she says “no,” but the next paragraph begins, “When she got to the conference center there were two long lines of people.” Zucker writes, “She wanted to know how she had come to be here after saying no and no and no.” At the end of “Apartment,” the third of the fables, Zucker writes:
Sometimes she sat there thinking about what it meant to be alive in one physical location instead of another, at one moment of time instead of another, to be one kind of animal rather than another. Other times she would pull the pocket door over that kind of thinking and sit and listen to the muffled sound of that kind of thinking while she made a clicking noise on her keyboard.
Wherever the speaker is, a sense of unease gnaws at her: “Whether the unease is caused by familiarity or strangeness she cannot discern.” All places are strange and familiar. All things are strange and familiar; sometimes, they mean one thing, and sometimes, they mean something else. The woman’s life is also familiar and strange to her: “Her dreams had a recurring feeling, a theme almost, of surprise.” She doesn’t realize she’s pregnant until she’s “nine months along,” and after years, she realizes that she is married “to that tall neighbor (she) always disliked!” This feeling, however, is “not exactly surprise.” Instead of labeling the experience déjà vu, she thinks, “Je ne suis jamais vu … Je ne suis jamais.” At the end of “Fables,” Zucker writes, “There is no such thing as leaving … There was no going away. Wherever she went they were with her.”
The same themes appear in “The Pedestrians” but from a first-person perspective and at a much faster pace. Three series of poems loop across the section: “real poems” (often short, direct statements), “dreams” (prose pieces that end with almost haiku-like flashes of insight), and several longer poems, including the title poem, most of which are rich, breathless meditations spoken during the emergencies of everyday life. The speaker is in search of herself, as is the “she” in “Fables.” It seems to me that the “she” and the “I” are the same person. I think “she” is the speaker fleeing from herself, and “I” is the speaker chasing herself. In any case, the speaker of “i’d like a little flashlight” says, “I’d like to get naked into the bed of my life.” The line might be the best expression of being estranged from oneself I’ve ever read. In “plant dream,” the speaker tells us that her “window plant is growing well.” She says to Josh, “If I just forget about it and leave it alone, it does really well.” After examining the plant, she looks “farther out on the fire escape” and notices “a plant (she’s) never seen before flowering with lush, white flowers.” When considering the self, it seems natural to think about others, and the speaker of these poems often thinks about her husband, children, strangers, and several poets, including Alice Notley and DA Powell. However, as “real poem (happiness)” tells us:
We’re all fucked up because in English
the phrase ‘to make someone happy’
suggests that’s possible.
On the surface, this epigrammatic poem suggests that other people can’t make one happy, but beyond that, it shows the relationship between language and happiness.
At the end of “pedestrian,” Zucker writes, “he’d / sell this short I bet the poem’s possibly timely / not likely timeless which someone once said / separates poetry from the pedestrian.” What “separates poetry from the pedestrian” seems to be one of the collection’s concerns. Perhaps, timeliness and timelessness have something to do with it, but as Zucker writes in the first line of “wish you were here you are,” “time isn’t the same for everyone,” so that complicates things a bit. In “Pedestrian,” she writes, “you know one can make / pickles w/ almost anything the radish / pinks everything up nicely but itself goes white.” The radish loses its distinguishing feature as it colors everything in the jar with it. At first, this recalls Eliot’s idea about the extinction of personality, but I think he means the poet empties herself and becomes a kind of channel, taking on the “colors” around her. In Zucker’s dynamic, the poet’s personality goes extinct as it bleeds into world around her. She makes the world beautiful by giving it her own beauty, so poetry becomes an act of sacrifice. Sacrifice generally involves pain, and Pedestrian shows how some kinds of pain can sometimes transform how we see and talk about the world. In the second paragraph of “mountains,” one of the prose poems from “Fables,” Zucker writes:
She passed a deer on the side of the highway, its legs stiff and at odd angles. Later she passed a deer grazing on the median. She thought, “That is a live deer,” and thought if she had not seen the dead deer first she would have just thought deer.
Seeing death makes the woman recognize life. In “apartment,” Zucker writes:
She practiced the guitar every day and took lessons once a week with her son’s teacher. The tips of the fingers of her left hand hurt all the time. On the subway she liked to press them gently and feel the pain swell up. The pain made her feel young and ambitious. Then she stopped.
One night while making fish tacos she burned the tip of her index finger flipping tortillas without a spatula. It hurt for days but gave her no pleasure.
Based on this passage, it seems that poetry might come from a pain that can also give pleasure, or it might be the transmutation of pain into pleasure. In The Pedestrians, “the tongue come(s) alive to the sharp, sweet tingle, and under that, the familiar taste of … skin.”
Jordan Sanderson grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in several journals, including Better: A Journal of Culture and Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Red Earth Review, burntdistrict and Caketrain, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (forthcoming from Slash Pine Press). Jordan’s critical work has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Heavy Feather Review, and Alehouse, among other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.