Review in The Fiddlehead
By Sharon McCartney
Zachariah Wells, Unsettled, (Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2004). 111 pp. $11.95.
Anyone who has ever worked a stupid job and been treated like dirt by thick-headed higher-ups will appreciate Zachariah Wells' Unsettled, particularly the first section, "Tricks of this Craft." In nineteen loosely linked poems that revolve around the speaker's experiences as a cargo-handler at an arctic airstrip, Wells skillfully recreates the rage, frustration, despair and off-duty elation of the "unskilled" labourer. Craft abounds. "A Cargo Handler Howls On His Fifteen Minute Break" uncorks a litany of complaints, a relentless rhythmic deluge: "Treelessness, sleeplessness, endless darkness, endless light, boxes, boxes, boxes-." The boxes return repeatedly, haunting the ends of lines, sealing the strings of details: "80 below, wet boots, frozen fingers, frozen toes, frozen wages, frostbite, hemorrhoids, heartburn, hangovers, diesel dust, black snot & boxes-." The poem ends on an ambivalently positive note of moral outrage, the speaker directly addressing the "mediocre middle-manager" who says that he, the speaker, has damaged too much freight: "Yes, but in this labour, brother, I will suffer nothing that won't make me tougher."
The word, tough, is the keynote here. Wells appears to be aiming for an unsentimental, unpoetic, unbeautiful rendering of a frigid, caustic, remote work-world. But there is warmth and beauty in these poems-not so much in the subject-matter but in the way the poet presents it, in the details and language. For example, the description of a co-worker in "Jake:"
Bull seal of a man he was. Flipper-huge
Hands and slung gut betokened a child's
monstrous hunger for pleasure and love,
For spicy grub that gutted his stomach,
For booze that fuelled his rage's white fire,
For sex that sired nine at nine and twenty
And handed him so many cases of clap
The nurse let him swab his cock by himself.
Titanic, his body's heat was volcanic;….
The diction belies the craft of these lines. The tonal heft of words such as grub, gut, booze and clap balances the delicacy of the assonance and internal rhyme. The anger that underlies the poem (the larger-than-life Jake is undone by the physical pain caused by manual labour) and the respect for the subject of the poem, for Jake, come out in the sharpness of the lines. No drifting line lengths, no slack endings, no sloppiness in the mostly four or five-beat lines knifed into couplets that end with an image that likens Jake the heroin-addict's butane flame to a setting white sun. An echo of Neil Young's every junkie is a setting sun?
Merciless is another word that comes to mind when reading these poems. Certainly, there's no mercy for the executives who, Wells asserts, "have proven themselves more rats than captains." But there's very little slack cut for anyone in Unsettled. Not for the "Nomads" who
stumble in from the jobless
east, one rock island to another, uprooted
easy as hydroponic cucumbers, grumbling
off & on about going home
as if they'd really left, as
if, like the fish, they can ever
return, southern rejects, blaming bleakness
for their fondness of the bottle-as if they'd not be
drunks in southern comfort-
Nor for the locals. In "Jack and Jill, Having Climbed the Hill, Come Down Again," Jack is "A pauper cum king of the world, sloshed/maestro conducting the sedge and the stone/and the gravel-choked wire-strung choir of ravens" while Jill is "blotto shrill." The poem ends with Jack in "A slomo, rigorous fall that ends with a crack,/A sticky brown flow from his crown/and Jill, come astumblin laughter-".
Nor for the poet, himself. "Not Quite Requited" addresses desire, regret and blame with a sense of mature responsibility while "A Mouthful of Stones" (which resembles a series of ghazals) won't let the speaker off the hook: "Cruelty is rarely intentional,/It has beer on its breath."
The forthrightness, the humility, the lack of sentimentality, the morality in Unsettled are all admirable, laudable qualities, but what I like most about Wells' work is the language, the words, the sounds-again, the craft. Wells dallies capably with form in a number of these pieces-sonnet, sestina, glosa-but his wading into formalism is not as exciting as his submersion in the glories of language. "White Trash" gives us
Spring! & a Coke bottle's red
wrapper flap snaps
synapses to time lapse
friezes of fisted petals,
stamens, pistils, up-
thrusting thawed earth!
Further on in "White Trash," the line "no hocus pocus crocus" is a bit much, but I'm willing to let that go in light of what came before, the exuberant insobriety of sounds and echoes that began the poem. "Aubade" works the same vein but with a more contemplative tone (and a touch of humour):
past the toppled rebar-
the Christcrossed white-
atop Hospital Hill
a haemorrhoidal dawn
For a first book, Unsettled includes remarkably few groaners. Wells appears to be a poet with good sense, one with the intelligence to make use of unusual material (arctic airstrip, "colourful" co-workers) but not to expect too much of that material on its own, to respect not only his material but also his readers by applying actual poetic skill, wordcraft, employing his vocabulary, his command of the language, his awareness of imagery, his eye and his ear to make something more of the material. Why is this so rare?