Not many contemporary books of poetry blend the prosaic and the mysterious as cohesively—or skillfully—as does Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians. Her book is composed of two distinct collections; the first, which is titled “Fables,” includes a variety of short prose pieces written in a close third person and reminiscent of parables or fables. The second half is titled “The Pedestrian” and written mostly in a lineated free verse form, characterized by colloquial, contemporary speech. This jointure of prose and free verse, first and third person, fable and lyric, speaks to Zucker’s penchant for conjoining the seemingly irreconcilable. Reading this book, I get the sense that Zucker wants to unite all opposites, all apparent dichotomies, into a single, heterogeneous whole. She wants the pedestrian to become extraordinary and vice versa.
Zucker’s desire to sublimate the pedestrian is not particularly unique. Indeed, to offer dignity to lived experience is perhaps one of literature’s most enduring legacies. Zucker’s approach to this task, however, is distinctive. The first half of the book, with its prose pieces, looks to describe contemporary, twenty-first century life in a way that generalizes her experiences, making them into “fables.” The use of third person pronouns throughout this section implies a reticence toward named things. In the opening piece, for example, which is called “The Other City,” Zucker describes travelling to Paris; however, she names neither Paris nor New York City, her hometown. She writes, “One summer they decided to take their children to a faraway city that was completely unlike the city in which they lived…The buildings were grandiloquent and everywhere remains of the defunct aristocracy glimmered behind the scrim of joie de vivre” (7). Throughout the piece, she speaks of both Paris and New York City in a distanced, descriptive voice. The effect is to create a sense of similitude—not only between the cities but also between the reader and writer. Names, the writer seems to imply, are short-cuts that create unquestioned, often inapt, distinctions. Perhaps some of these distinctions are valid—she does admit “everything is expensive” in Paris—but many of these assumed distinctions are merely “remains” of a now defunct epoch. In that same piece, she writes, “the whole notion of dissimilitude is illusory.” This is a poet who is interested not only in crossing boundaries but in erasing those boundaries in order that she—and therefore the reader—can reconsider the true natures of people, places and things.
This opening piece also situates Zucker—at least tangentially—in relation to the New York School of poets. Her urbanity, colloquial speech, and allegiance to contemporary poetry and continental culture are all reminiscent of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, among others. Indeed, to begin a collection of poems by comparing Paris and New York City comes across as almost a parody of the New York School. Zucker’s urbanity appears in these first “fable” poems most overtly in her diction. In the first few pages alone, one finds phrases like au courant, jet lag, insomnia, UPS truck, and la meilleure boulangerie. Zucker is admittedly more comfortable in a city than the wilderness, and her language illustrates this proclivity.
In the “Fables” section, Zucker largely restrains her colloquial speech—mainly by speaking in the third person—but by the second half of the book we hear a kind of renovated, modern-day O’Hara. In the book’s title poem, “Pedestrian,” she delineates all the things she does not want to do: “don’t want to go to the well-reviewed movie/The Maid at the Angelika or read Haryette/Mullen’s Recyclopedia or eat chicken soup w// roast chicken & egg noodles from Kelley & Ping…” (104). The list again is almost a parody of a Frank O’Hara poem, albeit set in the twenty-first century. It not only refers to contemporary culture in a blasé manner but also illustrates its own manic indecisiveness by dramatizing the hectic, breakneck speed of life in New York City. This is a poet who does not even have time to write out the word “with” so shortens it. With this said, Zucker is by no means solely within the realm of the New York School. Like nearly all poets today, she utilizes a variety of poetic traditions with roots in mid-twentieth century poetry. Another dominant school that Zucker seems indebted to in this book is the confessional school. Throughout the book are scattered poems that expose difficult details about the poet’s life. She includes poems about her marriage and sex life (25-27), her penchant for sleeping pills (29), and several intimate dreams. Her dream poems are a particularly interesting aspect to Zucker’s work. They provide a psychological depth to these poems that complements Zucker’s tendency toward the kitsch.
While they at times border on the surreal, these dream poems almost always are struggling with some sort of interpersonal relationship. In “Baby Hospital Dream,” she writes, “Women are milling about outside a hospital, waiting for their babies to be passed back to them through metal chutes in the brick wall. When I demand entry, the personnel in their starched whites ignore me…” (103). These poems are no Tate imitations; they come across as honest descriptions of fraught unconscious material. Indeed, the poet alludes several times to her interest in psychology, and these dream poems illustrate Zucker’s willingness to make public her most intimate fears and worries. Such a willingness necessarily associates her with the likes of Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell.
Zucker, however, seems dubious about confessional poetry’s legacy. Two of the poems in the “The Pedestrians” are actually titled “post-confessional,” and in one of them, she writes:
Last night the Post-Confessional
Poet said, ‘I don’t know how many
poets stand up at a reading and
tell you how bad they’re doing—I’m
doing real bad.’ Later she said,
‘Now we put toothbrushes up
assholes in poems all the time.’ (102)
The poem allows Zucker to assert that she knows the ills of confessional poetry. She recognizes the double-edged blade that results from divulging personal information; on the one hand, such confessions draw the reader into the poem in an engaging, honest fashion; on the other hand, they can easily devolve into a narcissism that is by no means endearing. Zucker, like many poets associated with the confessional school, might be criticized for her melodrama and personal exposés. Perhaps it was for this reason that she elected to begin with “Fables.” The third-person narratives in that section distance the poet from the subject of these poems. The third-person voice offers Zucker the opportunity to illustrate her depth and critical engagement with lived experience before overtly placing the speaker in the role of the “I.” For this reason, Zucker is able to delve into a more intimate confessional mode in the second half of the book without leaving herself open to that most pesky of literary pejoratives: “navel-gazer.”
This collection of poems, to my ear, flows almost flawlessly through the “fables” of the first section to the first-person lyrics of the second half of the book. One of the only issues I find with these poems is Zucker’s occasional negligence of the music of the line. For example, in “apartment,” which appears in the “Fables” section of the book, she writes, “She wanted to believe that she could write the way some women sat knitting. She wanted to make something out of peacefulness but worried that peacefulness was antithetical to makefulness” (37). That word “antithetical” stands out to me as both unmusical and unhelpful for the general theme of this poem. The rhythm of Zucker’s poems—especially her prose poem pieces—is dictated by an attentiveness to both prosody and the phrasal unit. In this case, Zucker creates a kind of anaphora with the phrase “She wanted to.” The first sentence is almost completely iambic—with a trochee in the last foot. The second sentence is also heavily iambic, and that word “antithetical” stands out as too rhythmically stagnant. It is, after all, an iambic word (with a headless iamb in the first foot). In other portions of the book, this inattentiveness to rhythm and tonality comes across as a willingness on the part of Zucker to say what she means. When she says “don’t want to go to the well-reviewed movie/The Maid at the Angelika or read Haryette/Mullen’s Recyclopedia,” I enjoy Zucker’s willingness to include names and details that are rhythmically strange or sonically unbalanced because she seems to be prioritizing precise, honest details over figurative speech. However, with a word like “antithetical,” there seem to be many other apt words or phrases to convey her meaning, and I would argue that “antithetical” is by no means the most musical or sonically fitting.
This is an almost purposefully trite critique to accentuate the great enjoyment I glean from Zucker’s blithe, yet anxious, voice. “The Pedestrians” as a whole moves naturally from the external world of cities to more intimate, internal nadirs and so illustrates the psychological depth that Zucker has found within our seemingly pedestrian contemporary lives.
The Pedestrians is available from Wave Books
Scott Riley is a MFA student in poetry at St. Mary’s College of California. He also holds degrees from UC Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. He lives in Menlo Park, CA.