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What We’re Reading: Beautiful Zero

2016 February 18

What We're Readingbeautiful zeroBeautiful Zero by Jennifer Willoughby (Milkweed Editions 2015)

This is a collection of poems that satisfied my cognitive, physical, and emotional hunger. Willoughby is master of brainy poetry, making difficult or surprising cognitive leaps with a unforgivably straight-forward tone. This is Willoughby’s first book, and was the 2015 winner of Milkweed’s Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. I am ever so grateful that these poems have been published as a unit.

Willoughby is an advertising copywriter, and this makes sense when viewing her poetry. There aren’t any unnecessary words, and each phrase packs a powerfully specific image. Time is not wasted in these poems. She writes glittering compact lines, tightly wound to unleash with maximum force.

I call this poetry brainy, as scientific elements such as rhizomes, bacteria, and the hippocampus all surface in Willoughby’s lines. But it’s more than that; other lines allude to “the hunt,” a primal instinct that seeps into and combines with scientific reason, along with a smattering of pop culture influences. All of this creates a forcefield of ripe imagery to talk through complex, emotionally hefty subjects such as love, pain, and vulnerability.

Right away, Willoughby sets the landscape that she intends to traverse with this collection, with the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away”. An excerpt:

Time: sunset. I am having a clearly defined feeling.
You are lost in immaculate self-regard.
Those diaphanous spores are copulating.
You are giving me disco lessons.
Dance fast and lead with your ass.
Without fear, my body would come apart.
Look at me go.

This poem’s title and following lines capture perhaps the most significant resurfacing theme for this book—Willoughby brings the reader in close in one line, then pushes them back in the next. The power of this intimacy given and forcefully taken away creates a complex relationship between speaker and reader.

This push-and-pull relationship is paralleled by Willoughby’s use of dark humor throughout. Humor sprinkles darker statements with surprise, such as in “Wisconsin Space Odyssey”: “The sky turns the color / of morning glories just before they / die and on the runway, planes / relax like ladies at a day spa.” These moments mix effortlessly with darker, dangerous images.

Another theme that surfaces in that first poem is fire, as an expression of the danger of (too much?) emotion. It’s echoed again in other poems, such as “The Properties of Women are the Properties of Life” with the line “Yes, we wrestle our feelings into flammable capes.” And later in a poem that is a statement about the U.S. called “Country on Fire”: “Living in this country is like finding / the weapon that solves the crime. No one claps, / but the wait is over. Blaze on, Florida, blaze on.” These fiery feelings attack subjects such as war, mental health, female strength.

The middle section is a series of poems called “Kaiser Variations,” taking place in Kaiser Permanente hospital. We start to see the speaker’s roots in trauma, mental health, complex marriage/love, the scientific approach to emotions, and the careful handling of said emotions, such as in “Kaiser Vaiations 3”:

[…] Big or small,
emotions were cocaine and I craved a billion while
poor Vivian got defeated by a group hug.
Counselor said: The speaking is easy but the feeling
is hard. I was stuck in the throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. […]

It’s good that these poems come in the middle section, heavy and essential to this collection’s arc as they are. As the reader, we feel what the speaker feels; drawn into the vortex of the emotions laid raw at our feet with that second section especially, then the need to distance ourselves from it. We resurface again in the third and final section with more confident poems, and a sense of re-building something, such as in “The Sun is Still a Part of Me”:

[…] My phone is close
to solving the mystery of why
I don’t answer the phone.
I am so busy. I am practicing
my new hobby of watching me
becoming someone else. There is
so much violence in reconstruction.
Each minute is grisly, but I have
to participate. I am building
what I cannot break.

There is constant destruction in recreation, and this final segement of poems grapples with that.

After digesting this collection, I keep coming back to a line in the poem, “It is Not Entirely My Fault,” where Willoughby writes “There is nothing less original than a sentence.”  Yet throughout Beautiful Zero, she proves this statement wrong with every sentence she writes. The contradiction and simultaneity of multiple truths is the heart of this book, and the reason I can’t shake these poems from my brain.

What other poets capture all of your senses, and cling to them after reading?


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