Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Corey Zeller: Man Vs. Sky

I bought Corey Zeller’s collection of prose poems, Man Vs. Sky (YesYes Books, 2013), on a whim at AWP in Boston. I was intrigued by its cover—an image of a creature with tree branches for antlers, standing in a forest of stars and cumulus clouds. It sat in my bag for over a month. One night, I couldn’t fall asleep, so I picked it up.

Its introduction caught my attention: it said the poems were written in the voice of the author’s friend, Jeremy Quezada, who’d committed suicide in January 2012. I did some math and realized the book had been written rather quickly, since the suicide was about a year before the book’s publication. Both intrigued and skeptical, I wondered: how good could a book written that quickly be? Though Rilke wrote Sonnets to Orpheus in just a few weeks and Plath composed the Ariel poems quite feverishly, it’s rare to have both the poetic talent and emotional fervor to write so quickly.

My skepticism immediately vanished once I started reading. Needless to say, the book did not help me fall asleep. Each poem felt like a gut punch. I lost myself in Quezada’s spectral voice—a voice that often speaks to a “you” that sometimes seems to be Zeller, other times a former lover, and, most importantly, sometimes seems to be the reader herself. The speaker’s frequent use of “you” made me feel more connected to the poems, as if the ghost were talking directly to me: “In the complete black, a small door opened and your face appeared.... You were laughing at me and your laughter was a city of cut green paper. Your laughter was snub-faced and back alley, blinking like ancient neon, a noir of sound.” The phrase “noir of sound” is a perfect example of the original diction that abounds throughout the collection.

In an early poem—“Like a hot bath in the light in the west”—the speaker confesses, “I am feeding something that doesn’t want to be. If you could hear it, you’d say it had a voice like a doll’s blue dress, white sleeves. You’d say: it is the tiniest thing I’ll never touch” (17). The “it” in this poem is intriguingly ambiguous. “It” could be death or ghost-hood or the desire for life—perhaps it is all these things, and more. Employing synesthesia, “it” is described as a voice that is like a dress and the smallest thing we’ll never touch because, well—how else to describe a spectral existence? The difficulty of this task forces the speaker to reinvent language.

A poet I respect once said to me that every book of poems tries to answer a question so essential or important or difficult to answer that it takes an entire collection to explore it—in other words, every collection is driven by a question the poet is obsessed with. In Zeller’s book, the question is “What happens to us when we die?” And that may be why this book is so engrossing: it seeks to answer a question most of us have. The paradoxical nature of an “after life” gives the poems an electric urgency. It seems the speaker himself is not sure where or what he is. He describes his body in several poems: “I am a pond made of teeth and wise hair” and “My chest cavity is a window of plaid,” and yet in other poems he says, “I fit so well inside my body now that it is not there” and “there is no such thing as heart or tongue.” The speaker is trying to say the unsayable—to describe a corporeal existence in which the body has ceased to exist, and the only way to describe this paradox is in paradoxical terms.

Although these poems explore what some may consider a grim, even morbid, topic, they never plunge into total darkness. When the speaker describes his paradoxical “body,” he says, “I am about the size of a cocktail umbrella now. I am a bit woozy.” In another poem, the speaker accuses, “You are guilty because you’re alive, and I am not.” This heartbreaking line is immediately followed by a lighthearted description of that guilt as “ectoplasm on strangers. You fly into them like that green floating glob in Ghostbusters.” Throughout the book, tragedy is often offset by comedy, which balances and heightens each one.

I have never read a book that so intensely writes from and about the body. Having lost his body forever, the speaker is obsessed with our world of hands and feet, limbs and fur. Even the poems’ titles often reference the body: “I shut my jaw and my dream teeth crack,” “Wolf milk there was a mother wolf standing in the tub,” and “Look at my legs I am the Nijinsky of dreams,” to name a few. Zeller’s visceral titles, most of which are fairly long, do not merely mirror the poems to which they belong. They do what all great titles should: they contrast and juxtapose; they evoke and provoke: they are not doors—they are windows. And, perhaps most intriguingly, the titles pay homage to a great poet who also committed suicide—a poet that Zeller clearly loves: Frank Stanford. The titles are lines from Stanford’s book The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. The fact that the titles were written by another poet gives the collection a polyvocal quality. This quality is also present in the poems themselves—while Quezada is the speaker, Zeller’s grief over Quezada’s suicide is palpable, and it becomes like a third voice in the collection.

The poems’ prose form allowed me to more easily enter their dream logic. White space urges readers to pause and reflect, and when a poet omits breaks, we read the lines more quickly and are less likely to stop and question leaps in logic—leaps in which rabbits are “skinned but moving, making the grass as pink as their veins” and “kids with animal heads sit in class. Their teacher is only strips of ribs and meat hung on strings about the room.”

Ultimately, I could point out that the lack of section breaks in the collection, along with the poems’ prose form, alludes to a larger meaning—that in death the world inhabits us and we fully inhabit the world. I could describe the book’s pulse: how, instead of a linear narrative or arc, Zeller improvises on a grief theme like a great jazz piece. But what I really want to say is that these poems cut me open, made me bleed and gasp and cry. I read Man Vs. Sky three times in one week, and I will keep reading it for years to come. I want to say, buy this book. Inhabit its fever dream.

Corey Zeller
Man Vs. Sky
YesYes Books, 2013