Jeffery Donaldson, review of Unsettled, University of Toronto Quarterly “Letters in Canada Annual,” 2004
Though he currently lives in Halifax, Zachariah Wells has worked as an airline freight handler on Baffin and Cornwallis Islands in the far north. I have been thinking of Wells's Unsettled in relation to Northrop Frye's Four Variations that I used as a map for last year's reviews. I am not sure that Frye thought of the north, in our collective consciousness, as especially evocative of the furnace motif, though a furnace certainly would be kept burning there all winter long. More convincing are the Promethean associations called to mind, the sense of a subversive energy that rises from down under, breaks through our unconscious, unsettles (to recall the title) and reorganizes our domesticities and routines. Given our penchant for irony, that our “down under” should be “up north” seems appropriate and everything else fits: the sense of a luminous, haunting presence that traverses our scrabbled constructions, a primary element that forces us to sacrifice any other cultural or artistic work to the basic concerns of staying alive. To Heaney's exhortation that we should “compose in darkness” (in his North”), Wells replies: “A compelling command, I suppose / If you're in the position / Of comfortably conjuring Norse / Ghosts, straying, but not staying, North. // But if you've really made the long foray / Into Qausuittuq, you've no choice—decomposing's / Not even an option. We stopped expecting / Aurora Borealis some months ago. // And we burned all our metaphors / To stay warm.” The formal demonstrations in this book aside (there is a sestina and a series of quite fine ghazals), this is straight-talking poetry that casts suspicion upon our various ideals of the north, for instance, that the Aurora Borealis should be a metaphor for divine cosmic revelation, that cold builds character. The undermining of expectations tends to relate more to the mythical dimension than to the social, where we might be more concerned with poverty in the north and its associated ailments; the north itself is put to the test here. The particular cadence and language of these poems would belie any tendency on our part to associate simplicity with emptiness, straight-talk with “little to say”: “past the toppled rebar- / spined inuksuk / the Christcrossed white- / washed rock / atop Hospital Hill / orchestrates / a haemorrhoidal dawn.” Wells' chiselled effects are apparent, the shaped utterance propped atop a national outcropping, but the passage speaks volumes about the relation between the mythically monumental and the intimately compromised human, and this seems to be the hard-won lesson of this book.