Scary, No Scary. Zachary Schomburg. Black Ocean. 80 pp., $12.95.
When he was three years old, the son of a friend fell for a time into a habit of saying to his parents several times a day, “Remember when I was Little Seamus, and I . . ,” after which he would launch into one of the many stories his parents had told him of what he was like when he was a baby. The story charms me every time I think of it, because it reveals so much about childhood and about the way that even as—or especially as—very young children, we naturally grasp what is so important about stories, the way they simultaneously create and confirm a place for us, the solitary individual, in the larger world. Seamus, growing and changing dramatically by the day, needed to be reassured that the old him really had existed, and the best way to do that was to remind his parents of the proof they had already given, probably quite casually, of that fact.
It was only on my second reading of Zachary Schomburg’s wonderfully strange Scary, No Scary that I realized that the distinct voice of his poems, whose provenance had been eluding me even as it felt deeply familiar, was that childhood storytelling voice. It’s more the voice of a grade-schooler than a three-year-old, but it carries that same sense of urgency, married to a simultaneous awe of and flexibility with language, natural for a child, that adults have to struggle to attain. Take this, from “New Kind of Tree,”
There is a new kind
It grows one meter per minute.
One boy played
in this new kind of tree.
He is too high in the tree
to get down.
His family is busy blowing kisses.
Or this, from “I Know a Dead Wolf We can Climb Inside and Beat”:
I know a dead wold
we can climb inside
like little hearts.
It would maybe
This is language returned to one of its essential uses, clearly describing our fears—and by describing them, domesticating them, rendering them something that falls between pleasantly shivery and laughably silly. Getting stuck up a tree may be scary, but our family will be there; a wolf is scary, but maybe we could choose to be the wolf ourselves. The discovery of language, and its power to shape and control, renders the world’s mutability fascinating rather than terrifying—who knows what we might become? Scary, no scary.
As in children’s stories, playfulness and seriousness live side by side here, aware of no incongruity. “Goodbye Lesson” rehearses obsessions with origins and inheritance, filtered through the pleasures of repetition and injected with a shot of fear:
I have to say goodbye. I’ve been adopted. I’ll grow up in the house on the hill with all the bats. One of my parents will be part-night, part-tree. The other will be part-person, part insect. My new sister will be part-night, part-tree, part-person, part-insect. They will all eventually die in a farm accident/wolf mauling. I am part-wolf, part-farm accident. I will be cursed with a life without end, eternally trekking through the woods.
At times, an adult perspective—one whose understanding of loss is deeper, if still far from complete—slips in almost silently, turning the products of imagination into elegiac vows, as in this passage from “Love Is When a Boat Is Built from All the Eyelashes in the Ocean”:
When the bats
from the mouth of
hold on tight
at my waist.
If I fall
into the ocean
bury what washes up
beneath the mattress
of my first bed.
Other tones and voices appear, too, some as close to childhood as fairy tales, others more like myth and fable, or even fortune telling (“Your limbs / will be torn off / in a farm accident.”), but all share the same relatively plain language and straightforward, declarative, sentence-like quality. This is poetry that does not look to sound or meter to separate itself from prose (though the occasional line surprises—”We like to ride bikes and fly kites together.”); rather, it relies on its brief lines and the disjunctions they cause. The title poem offers perhaps the purest example of the way enjambment is deployed to control and delay the delivery of information:
The old man
at the front door
will be prepared
to give you a tour,
but first he’ll ask
scary, or no scary?
You should say
And a comparison between one of the book’s handful of prose poems and its lineated ones helps make clear just how deftly Schomburg uses enjambment to focus attention and set a pace. “Falling Life,” for example, is almost stately in its progress:
You are in a very high tree.
If you jump
you will live a full life
You will get married
to a hummingbird
and raise beautiful part-
“I Was Surrounded by a Mob of People,” despite featuring similarly short sentences, positively cascades along by comparison:
I was surrounded by a mob of people. I showed my teeth. I kicked many of them in the ribs. Many of them kicked me back, in the ribs. One of them had the face of my dead mother and one of them had the face of my dead father.
Images, too, are crucial, and Schomburg relies largely on repetition to give his their power. From poem to poem, the same objects, the same items, turn up again and again, often in a chain that leads us from the end of one poem to the beginning of another, and on and on, giving the whole collection the feel of a gangly, permissive sestina. He takes familiar objects of fear (wolves, fire, forests, darkness, corpses, abandoned buildings) and, simply by calling them by their names while changing and re-changing their context, renders them surprising and compelling:
Inside the woods is an abandoned hotel.
Trees grow in the lobby
and up through the rooms.
Or, from “The Old Man Who Watches Me Sleep”:
The old man who watches me sleep
growing from his chest.
This is a mistake.
It’s a technique that shares genes with surrealism, but Schomburg displays none of surrealism’s love of shock for its own sake; Scary, No Scary is far closer to Ovid (to say nothing of Steven Millhauser and Kelly Link) than to Dali, and Schomburg’s compositions are the better for it, their unexpected juxtapositions more organic and convincing.
The surrealists, after all, were adults playing games, while children, like Ovid, are speaking the world into being—and the connections they draw, obscure though they may be, are necessary. These poems, often funny, frequently child-like, are at the same time far from whimsical. We emerge from the book as from a dream—not quite a nightmare and quickly fading—to find our backyard tent still pitch-black around us, the night still quietly rustling with breath outside.
There’s an index to the book, so you can go straight to what you fear.
Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for The Quarterly Conversation.
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