Settlers, by F. Daniel Rzicznek. Anderson, South Carolina: Parlor Press, October 2018. 89 pages. $14.00, paper.
In his latest collection, F. Daniel Rzicznek leads readers through a world ripe with abandonment and haunted by fragments of a past that are as mysterious as they are important, at least within the attempt to make meaning in the face of loss and desolation.
Make no mistake, Settlers is full of life: fathers, dogs, horses, geese, goats. But the manner in which they occupy a poem is always in relation to the landscape, and to the ways in which the speaker navigates said landscape for greater understanding. Settlers begins with “Deathless Navigator,” a persona poem of sorts, one in which the speaker “inhabit[s] a woman who / watches [an outdoor setting] through half-open blinds.” However, this only lasts for a moment, since the speaker realizes that they are “wholly unqualified in time— / lacking in minutes, sunsets” to really experience what they imagine this “woman” once experienced. Still, the speaker’s attempt is genuine, and the past, even if invented, is one that they are grateful for, confessing that they wrote in this room centuries ago, and that the walls bled for them, i.e. provided the impetus to relate this experience into a poem.
Although “Deathless Navigator” might occur within the confines of a dwelling, a vast majority of poems enter and interact with the surrounding world, namely the Midwestern wilderness and the many small towns that, through migration elsewhere, have become ruins. In “Potterstown” the speaker catalogs the barrenness of the landscape, explaining that the “Population [is] ghosts, hawks, field mice,” and that “Anyone who loved this place has left.” But Rzicznek’s description isn’t merely for the sake of description; it elegizes loss and the recognition of such loss:
Every direction is a road out
taking the story of the naming,
the forsaken town hall itself a heart.
Father and child on a porch swing.
At the cold center of the compass
a word on every set of lips.
A long way to bringing him there,
down that road where the light is.
The light, in its figurative sense, has left the same way people who once lived here have left. There is little the town has to offer, even if a father and child are present. There are shades here of Alan Shapiro’s Night of the Republic, a book which details places with little human interaction and/or interference. Shapiro depicts more public settings (gas station, supermarket, gym, shoe store, convention hall), but that same sense of desolation, and in turn isolation, that is present in Shapiro’s work is found in Rzicznek’s, albeit in a more pastoral setting.
One of the more interesting aspects of Settlers are the “Of” poems (found in the second section of the book), which ponder and expand on themes referenced in the titles (History, Religion, Opposites, Progress, Seasons). The poem “Of Burial” stands out because of its elegiac and haunting nature:
This is me, trying to understand:
spatter in all directions.
But in two weeks the news
relents, lurches sideways into what
will be forgotten within the month.
Scavengers hoist torn shadows
away over hilltops. Beneath
those hills, imagine a crawl,
a torch gnawing the walls:
bones of men, frames of eagles—
the remains intermingled.
The scene seems rather purgatorial. Who are the scavengers hoisting torn shadows? Where are the bones from? How did they come to be buried beneath those hills? Even if these questions aren’t answered, the speaker mourns the news (which we can assume is a death in some manner) because they realize that like all things within this world it will be forgotten relatively quickly.
In several of these “Of” poems, the image of a gunman appears. This might seem strange given the landscape imagery prevalent throughout, and the fact that its presence is quite sudden within the poem, but regardless the image does help highlight the speaker’s attempt to understand life on a level they didn’t think was possible. In “Of Religion,” we see how in the face of death, the speaker understands “understanding”:
The second before the gunman
makes his intentions believable:
there—that face—no happiness.
Understanding is nothing more
than the brain at the middle of it
all, peacefully asleep.
It is when we are not seeking to understand that we are enlightened, and in the face of bodily destruction (and ruin in general), a certain sense of calm settles within us.
Perhaps no poem in this collection better embodies this than “Killbuck.” Cut from the same cloth as “Potterstown,” the speaker, with his father, passes through what appear to be endless stretches of farmland. A detour throws them off course, but “One road [leads] to an older one,” and although they encounter more farms, there is a serenity that permeates the scene:
My father and I pressed on
to a two-lane straightening
through cattails and marsh stink,
into towns dark for the night,
the route, a flashlight snaking,
a single gas station ablaze.
Away, my brother made it:
a horse in the clouds, barely awake.
Nothing inherent here. Miles,
then the sprawling graveyard.
Most wouldn’t find tranquility in a graveyard, even a metaphorical one, but again, it’s the speaker’s recognition that loss is always near that makes such a landscape bearable, despite what routes might appear on the road ahead.
Rzicznek’s ability to contemplate and detail scenes where there is little left is not only a testament to his careful attention as a poet, but a reminder that there is much to capture in parts of the world that are often forgotten or neglected. What truly was, is, and becomes “settled” is beyond the scope of any one poetry collection, but Settlers chips away at those difficult questions of being, and in the end, when we have settled into the images, themes, and emotions this book expands upon, we find that we have learned more about the human condition, and are ready, even if we think we’re not, to “know ourselves” better.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019) and the micro-chapbook Soledad (Ghost City Press, 2019). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives with his family and teaches in Austin, Texas.