Carol Szamatowicz
Woodacre, CA: The Owl Press, 2001

While reading Zoop, I found myself sporadically repeating the phrase gratuitous weirdness, which was the name of a 70s underground rock program on WYBC (the Yale University station). The ironic thing is, its first and subsequent airings of Zappa, Airplane, Velvet Underground, the Who’s pre-operas, and on and on, were not at all gratuitously weird; their strangeness epitomized the deeper, wiser desires behind the surface elements of 60s rebelliousness.

By contrast, gratuitous does describe much of the weirdness in Zoop.

To be sure, nearly every sentence in this 96-page volume of dense, one-page prose poems scintillates with originality. Carol Szamatowicz’s blend of surreal and language techniques effectively skew our everyday perceptions ("I am roasting partially dried snow", "She wears pants like warm blood"). And she does some great parodies of Bob Dylan’s Tarantula, the style of whose oddball yet linear tales has not fully been exploited ("Stoney Lonesome wags up to an openface and rebuffs the notion of upland crew"). However, by combining wildly surreal imagery with language poetry’s drier, more impersonal thwarting of meaning, Szamatowicz essentially cancels out their effectiveness. The nonsense is paralyzing rather than freeing; the obscurity is opaque rather than puzzling. In short, they can be tiring to decipher.

Nevertheless, a number of the vignettes are compelling, hinting at underlying meanings. And they seem to do so more regularly as the book progresses, suggesting that Szamatowicz has mastered her idiom. Such tightly effective control can be found in "How Things Work", which opens with an ominous sci-fi tone that informs the whole piece: "We have no adequate mechanical analog of the brain." This leads, a few lines further on, to:

The assembly line gave us humours, science, drugs, behaviorism and modern education. The desert smells like rain. tobacco was used in the sacred smoke houses and could bring enlightenment: to see in the dark, to talk with the dead, to sense the source of a companion’s disease and realize its cure.

Indeed, after the tongue-in-cheek tone many of the other pieces sport, such literal sentences feel almost embarrassingly sincere. Perhaps they also point to the need and potential for further work that would better synthesize intellect, emotion and the irrational yet meaningful imagery of dream and fantasy. Szamatowicz certainly possesses the ability to do such work and thereby create poetry which, with all its cleverness, still connects more deeply with readers.

-- Alexandra Yurkovsky