by Heather Lang
Do you remember the first time that you played pin the tail on the donkey? I do. I was blindfolded and had to trust my guide, my spinner, who twirled me around until I barely knew the ground from the ceiling, much less the location of that construction-paper donkey. It’s interesting what we can notice during these disorienting experiences. This was the moment that I first observed the soft-floral perfume of my mother’s best friend, and I discovered that my elementary-school crush giggled like Alvin, the chipmunk. I was the “lucky” one who could peek beneath my hand-towel blindfold, but I was disappointed to find that no matter how far back I tilted my head, I could only see my light-up high tops and the patch of chocolate-brown carpet beneath them. I remember hoping that the birthday cake would be vanilla.
These are the types of memories that come to mind as I read Jennifer Willoughby’s Beautiful Zero. In this debut poetry collection, Willoughby writes about all-of-the-things, or so it seems, but she does not write about pin the tail on the donkey. Rather, these poems remind me of this children’s game as they disorient me. The moment that we think we might have our feet on solid ground, she grabs us by the figurative shoulders and forces us in another direction, and it is through this disorientation that the poet can deconstruct and then reconstruct the world around us. We stumble our way through the collection gaining an appreciation for these new meanings and these deeper connections.
Beautiful Zero is a book of seemingly, but not actually, reckless juxtapositions, and this constant allows the reader to give herself over to the random sights, sounds, and feelings that are deliberately splattered throughout the collection. The title of the opening poem, “Come Close Then Back Away,” sets the tone for these connections and contrasts. Mid poem, for example, Willoughby writes, “My knee-socks nestle at my feet. / Then we create an adult situation.” The line containing these knee-socks, a clothing accessory that reminds me of my grade-school uniform, is pressed up against the more scandalous sentence, “Then we create an adult situation.” Despite the youthful tenor being pushed against a much more grownup matter, the pieces are glued together. They are not random because, combined, the lines suggests pre-coital clothing loss. With Willoughby as our guide, however, we’ll never head in one direction for more than a moment, oftentimes one line, and this is a great pleasure of Beautiful Zero. The poem moves on to the “record player [that] is skipping in the distance,” “a column of oxygen,” and trees which treat the speaker “like fire.” Within the context of the poem, together it all somehow makes sense.
Another part of Beautiful Zero’s disorientation tactic is relabeling. In “Do Not Be Broken By The Day,” Willoughby writes:
Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith
is not as interesting as a dead pigeon
in the cistern after a long winter.
The world doesn’t want to see you
on your knees for more than a minute
when it could be inspecting a music
box that knew how to fly.
Although the poet does not literally state that this being “on your knees” is an act of prayer, the “faith” within the first line lends this suggestion. There are the more violent connotations of this image, as well. The command, “take it,” even within the context of giving advice, quietly hints at a violence, maybe even a sexual violence, as I ponder the image of a woman on her knees. This act of being “on your knees,” something that could clearly represent one thing, prayer; or another, a fall; or another, a sexual act, might be ever-so-subtly redefined each time that we read this complex and ambitious poem.
Another example of this relabeling, a literary device of sorts, falls within these same lines. Willoughby redefines the “dead pigeon” as a “music / box that knew how to fly.” Certainly, this sheds a new light on the pigeon, a species of bird that many consider to be an urban pest. As these lines are all tangled up within sentiments of prayer and brokenness, a hope for the rebirth of even the most shattered and downtrodden hearts comes to fruition. If this dirty creature might have been something so delicate and lovely as a music box, surely we can find hope in and for ourselves, as well.
Within the middle of the fifty-one-page collection, the reader will find ten poems titled “Kaiser Variation” followed by a number, 1 through 10. Each of these poems is set within Kaiser Permanente, but each one tackles a different ailment, sometimes literally. In “Kaiser Variations 3,” Willoughby employs an extended metaphor as she writes, “It was the fourth quarter of the Badger-Buckeye / game and I smashed the neutrality rule eleven / times in the psych ward at Kaiser Permanente.” Using humor, the poet disorients us, as “Vivian,” a member of the counseling session, is “defeated by a group hug.” The counselor says that the “speaking is easy but the feeling / is hard,” and the poem, as well as the football metaphor, continues:
I was stuck in throes of accuracy, unplugging
my childhood of unimproved love. Man down!
Man down on the field, Bucky oompa’s a cute
tuba player […]
This blend of tragedy, as the speaker contemplates how “emotions were cocaine,” with comedy, like the flirtatious badger mascot, distances the psych ward scene from its gravid reality. This gift of humor allows us to more fully contemplate these important narratives because we’re less likely to simply turn away. Moreover, the illness changes within each Kaiser variation, so we’re never forced to linger on any one tragedy for too long. This is a kindness, one that allows the reader to embrace the critical catastrophes, such as both the literal and the figurative broken hearts, of Beautiful Zero.
Beautiful Zero is strange, and it is important. If I had to liken this collection of poetry to a children’s game, I might suggest pin the tail on the unicorn, for its magic, or pin the tail on the mermaid, for its nod toward humanity. More likely, however, I’d hope that we might choose some bizarre-yet-real-life creature, perhaps a species that we have yet to discover. And, when the time comes to look for this striking new beast, I would only hope that we might find a guide who is as gracious and as wise as Milkweed Editions’ new poet, Jennifer Willoughby.
Milkweed Editions (2015): $16.00
Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in diode, Pleiades, The Normal School, and Whiskey Island among other publications. Recently, she was awarded the Spain 2015 Murphy Writing Scholarship and the Fairleigh Dickinson University Baumeister Award. Heather, an FDU MFA graduate, is an editor for both The Literary Review and Petite Hound Press, and she will serve as an AWP16 moderator/panelist. http://www.heatherlangwrites.com