No Rec Room of Her Own

The chaotic, exuberant, vexatious poems of Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents (2009) exhibited the distractions, depletions, and exhilarations of a modern urban motherhood: Some sounded as if Zucker had composed them while shepherding her toddler through the subway, others as if she had made them up at the conclusion of a sleep-deprived night. It was an uncommonly honest, almost embarrassing poetry, one that seemed artless if you read it too fast, and yet one achingly aware of precedents: Zucker called one long poem “Hey Allen Ginsberg Where Have You Gone and What Would You Think of My Drugs?” In another, one child “looks up at me all pink- / cheeked and sweet, sweet, sweet-faced”; “Nighttime he is nuclear, / radiant, a febrile jewel emitting a strange honeyed smell.” Five pages later his brother barfs in her eye.

After such a mess, and such an achievement, what next? One answer was prose: In 2010 Zucker—who is also a birth doula—published, with Arielle Greenberg, Home/Birth: A Poemic (i.e., “poetic polemic”), a brief, with state-level policy recommendations for more midwives, fewer cesareans, more home births. (Readers who had satisfying home births might love it; readers who have relied on NICUs could hate it.) The less polemical prose of MOTHERs (2013) recalled Zucker’s own mother, the professional storyteller Diane Wolkstein: Zucker found her “unpredictable,” “competitive,” “selfish, narcissistic, frightening,” putting her writing before her only child in a way that split up the family. Zucker, by contrast, “wanted to have lots of kids and stay home and do art projects with them. . . . I did not want to be a writer like my mother.”

MOTHERs explained how Zucker became a writer unlike her mother instead. It also followed Zucker’s search for a mother, a mentor, within the poetry world: My colleague Jorie Graham, who had been Zucker’s teacher at Iowa, could not fulfill that role, but Brenda Hillman and Alice Notley could. (Full disclosure: Zucker’s mixed feelings about my own review of Museum, she says in MOTHERs, affected her like an “allergic reaction. . . . Isn’t this what I wanted?”)

Now comes The Pedestrians, Zucker’s next book of poems. The first half actually consists of more prose, as if she were trying hard not to repeat Museum. But her key subjects, and her gifts, have not changed, nor has she come close to exhausting them: So the second half reveals. That first part, titled “Fables,” consists of short, not-quite-narrative blocks of prose, evacuated of proper nouns, depicting midlife frustration in a parsimonious vocabulary, on vacation or at home in New York. “During the day it was hard to hear what the children were asking for. At night she thought longingly of sleeping pills.”

Though some have traditional openings and talking animals (“Once there was a jackdaw”), no one could call these works fables without irony: They have no morals, not much allegory, no appeal to the young, and no myth. Instead, they are anti-fables, anti-tales, one more way that Zucker differs from her mother. (Some pages put me in mind of Lydia Davis, though without Davis’s sense of constant experiment.) In one “fable” a woman who bears much resemblance to Zucker agrees, after first refusing, to “go see the renowned Buddhist monk” whom her mother admires. The “monk spoke about staying in the present, about anger, about breath,” but the poet will have none of it: “If there was a present—and she was not sure that there was—it was made of anger.”

“Fables” is full of anger, and no wonder: In its spare paragraphs, the woman has tried to imagine a room of her own, to get away from an all-consuming life. “She wanted to go to the hospital and be taken care of. Or else she wanted to be sequestered as a juror in a motel.” In “Mountains,” she drives into a thinly described wilderness, eating salt off her palm, holing up in “one room of a many-roomed house.” But it does not suit her. “After several years of practice, she was able to be alone, almost anywhere, for two to three minutes,” but not more than that—her loved ones return, like wheat in the wind, “a hail of grains. . . . Wherever she went they were with her.”

Zucker’s sense that she cannot get free, that she cannot be herself alone, generates a withdrawn distress. Yet her return, in the second part of The Pedestrians, to the everyday, to proper nouns, to clutter and fluster, and (mostly) to verse, amounts to good news for her readers: It is in those verse and prose poems, not in her chillier sequences, that Zucker does what no other writer can do. Here is the first of eleven short works called “Real Poem”:

Woke up. First big snow making
a new light—said that
before. Can’t write—children—
said that. Get up:
food, oxygen. Seen snow before.

Zucker seeks novelty, in this second part, not by adopting new tones, but by using new (that is, new for her) poetic kinds: epigrams and short notes; unadorned, quizzical records of dreams (“egg dream,” “day care dream”). Not only does this work, it also yields helpful advice: “I give one son a quarter for 2-or-fewer / complaints a day & none for more.” Having written, earlier, of pregnancy and babies, Zucker keeps seeing babies in her dreams, but there is less embodiment, less medical material, as well as less sex, in The Pedestrians than in Museum. Instead, Zucker writes the poetry of a parent, a mother, and a teacher, pulled every which way by multiple kids and multiple expectations: Make something of yourself, exercise your own creativity, set good examples, respond to your partner, give something back to a larger community, and put your children first.

Zucker’s distractible, anxious verse does not just point out that it’s difficult to find the time and energy to be both a good parent and a good poet: It suggests that parenthood and poet-hood are psychological opposites. The latter demands that we make clear our complaints, that we take risks, that we do something self-serving, that we try to be honest no matter how much we might disturb our listeners or ourselves, that we delve into problems nobody can solve. The former demands that we stick with our “to-do list,” that we put other people ahead of ourselves, that we tolerate the disingenuous, that we suppress our complaints (at least till kids go to bed) rather than working them up into art.

Rachel Zucker, New York, 2014.

Of course, many parents who are poets can and do separate the roles, attending to kids at one hour and writing about something, anything else at the next. But the difficulty of that separation for Zucker is her great subject. Not her marriage, not her family, but her psyche and her sentences seem to be “staying together for the sake of the children,” as the cliché goes:

What are you saying? texts Erin Can’t talk

I text back but want to ask why is this life so run-
run-run long underground train then crosstown bus
that is my son with his 50 small feet

Behind these lines you might hear the “mommy wars” of our era, or the as-if-improvised poetry of Bernadette Mayer, one of a few models for Zucker’s on-the-fly style. “please alice notley tell me how to be old” acknowledges another, in a rapid line that approximates (but never resolves into) old-style pentameter:

all the people who say

they love me are siphoning me feeding off me
not like they did when they were babies but
eating away at me & for a while my soul
seemed to fly out of my body but I didn’t know

“What is it like to not have children?” MOTHERs asks. “I can’t remember. Can’t imagine.” “I am the mother who does not leave even when I sometimes want to.” But family are not the only people who impinge on Zucker’s consciousness in The Pedestrians. At once social and antisocial, resentful and friendly, Zucker’s lines also acknowledge, and answer, the literary friends and allies, and even her students—“Boystar and Eddie,” Kiki Smith, D. A. Powell—who occupy her head when (if ever) the children leave.

Zucker’s book title refers to her crowded, pedestrian-friendly city: “I’ll never leave New York & when I do / I too will be unbodied.” The rest of America seems goyish and alien: In its “briny dream of elsewhere” Zucker would be no more than “a released dybbuk.” If Wolkstein, who “had her own weekly radio program . . . called ‘Stories from Many Lands,’” could use tales from Sumer or France to delight a live audience in Australia, Rachel Zucker will focus her poems almost stubbornly on her own life, on the page, in New York. (“I’ve been trying to get away from her,” MOTHERs says, and yet “the body of my mother is everywhere.”)

Zucker’s title also means that facts, practicalities, obligations, do not so much invade her imagination as constitute it, and if that makes her poems refuse older aesthetic ideals, so much the worse for those ideals: “bet this poem’s possibly timely / not likely timeless which someone once said / separates poetry from the pedestrian.” A therapist calls Zucker “a bad negotiator said I tolerate / too much emotional chaos & put the needs of others / before my own What I asked is the alternative?

That chaos drives Zucker’s poems, and when she makes fun of journalists who call her life a “juggling act” she is not just rejecting a cliché, but promising better ways to present her own harriedness, hyperalertness, defensiveness, sensitivity, and generosity, her helpless attention to “my son & son & son.” “There’s something uncomfortable about naming so many names,” Zucker muses in MOTHERs, but her best writing is nothing if not uncomfortable. If you know that discomfort already, you might see yourself in the best parts of Zucker’s poems (you might begin The Pedestrians in the middle). If you are used to a more controlled, or a more cerebral, art—or if you are a less anxious person—you might find Zucker’s rawness hard to like. You might learn a lot about life if you try to like it.

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Belmont (2013) and Close Calls with Nonsense (2009; both Graywolf Press).