Thursday, August 24, 2006



Where X Marks The Spot by Bill Zavatsky
(Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2006)

“Another Chance In the Light”

In the preface of the fourteenth century mystical treatise, The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous author cautions readers not to continue unless adequately prepared to face the mysteries of heaven. The same can be said for Bill Zavatsky’s new collection of poems, Where X Marks the Spot, although we must replace ‘mysteries of heaven’ with ‘realities of earth’. In the tradition of Thomas Hardy’s Winter Words, and Wallace Stevens’ The Rock, Zavatsky’s new collection is mature in its ability to express complex, often contradictory emotions in straightforward language. His poems are the resonances of childhood, young adulthood, romance, marriage, divorce, and impending old age in the heart of a man who refuses to give in to the cancers of self-hatred and misanthropy. Unlike much modern poetry, Zavatsky’s work is never guilty of cultivating the opaque. It therefore distinguishes itself from a good deal of what has emerged from the New York School, a movement he was associated with during the years he ran the small press SUN and SUN magazine, and while a student of Kenneth Koch’s in the early 1970’s.

Zavatsky grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut and attended local schools before entering Columbia University, where he received B.A. and M.F.A. degrees. He has published two previous collections of poetry, Theories of Rain and Other Poems and For Steve Royal and Other Poems. He has also worked as a jazz pianist (and incidentally was a good friend of the late jazz pianist Bill Evans), a journalist (with articles in The New York Times Book Review and Rolling Stone) and as a translator, translating Valery Larbaud, Robert Desnos, and André Breton. Since 1985, he has been teaching English at Trinity School in Manhattan, where he continues to inspire students with an energizing mixture of humor and erudition.

Zavatsky is a confessional poet, but not a facile one He uses his own life as a site through which to celebrate and mourn experiences most of us share, whether we choose to talk about them or not. Take, for example, the following lines from the title poem “Where X Marks the Spot”,

               Then we arrived at the place
where, afterwards, I would never see you again,
at the parking lot near Times Square.
There I marked the sidewalk with X’s
visible only to me: “At this place
I was lost again,” they’d say to me
when I walked there in the future.
“Dig here and find what’s left of me,
or what I left behind, where X marks the spot.”

In these lines, the hopes we affix to other people, and the losses we incur upon their exits from our lives, are engrafted into a location (a parking lot) that forever resonates with the content of both emotions. We have all been to this parking lot, and must confront the realities of who we were should we return. The intelligence of the poem does not end here, however. Zavatsky tells a story of unrequited desire that simultaneously frames the hopeful incipience he experienced on the date, “I thought that I had not been / this happy in a long time with a woman / and was ready to become even more happy…” against the consciousness of its devastating outcome: “not knowing what you were soon to say to me / as we dined…”. Such juxtapositions reflect poems, in the words of John Yau (who recently reviewed this collection with the highest acclaim!), “…not made up of surface gestures. They are layered and sinuous, the direction of the narrative thrust turning, twisting, and jumping in ways that catches us up”. Yau goes on to explain how the influences of Surrealism, Futurism, and Cubism – and an adept ear for jazz – keep the poems from collapsing into the limited, solipsistic “I” that dominates much confessional poetry from the American twentieth century. Behind Zavatsky’s lucid narrative streams are intricate matrices of music, rhyme, juxtaposition, free association, and wordplay. His poems are modern without being flashy, sensational, or purposefully unintelligible.

I don’t like it one bit
when I hold you like that
and you hold me
and then go away

dropping kisses, those previews
of coming attractions
that I never get to see

kisses fallen to the pavement
like broken pairs of lips
I’m still trying to put together…

Personally, I am most impressed by Zavatsky’s emotional range. He is able to shift from objective contentment to subjective terror, from harlequinesque hilarity to undiluted devastation in the space of a single poem. And somehow, he is consistently able to find his way back to a smile, even if more Mona Lisa’s than Timothy Leary’s. In the poem “Not Me Any More”, students discover his first book of poems in the school library, on the jacket of which is a picture of him as a young man in the early 1970’s,

               They can’t believe that the old face
they’ve seen all year, the face that has yapped
at them, frowned, laughed madly, grown pas-
-sionate about Whitman or Williams, that this
worn-out face was once framed by golden hair that
reached to its shoulders. I laugh along with
them, It is pretty funny, after all, when the day
comes when you don’t look like yourself any more!

After a journey through Zavatsky’s world of strength and pain, humiliation and humor, the reader is left with the heartwrenching notion that his (or our) love for life increases in direct proportion to how deeply it wounds. Life’s wounds, and the specter of mortality, whether couched in humor or not, haunt Zavatsky’s book in a way that intensifies his unflappable commitment to “another chance in the light”. Where X Marks The Spot is a comforting, entertaining, and heartbreaking book that returns poetry to the art of direct expression without losing an ounce of sophistication or musicality. It should be read and reread for years to come!


Andrew McCarron was born and raised in the Hudson River Valley. He was educated at Bard College and Harvard Divinity School and currently lives and works in Manhattan, where he teaches Religion at Trinity School and is enrolled in a doctoral program in Psychology at the City University of New York. He is also a poet and has published work in the Colorado Review, the Hudson Review, Octopus Magazine, and Hanging Loose Magazine.


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