Reviewed by Susana H. Case
“[B]oy what I wouldn’t give for a shot of bourbonized plasma,” Joseph Zaccardi laments in The Weight of Bodily Touches, this former Marin Country, California Poet Laureate, refusing to allow the existence of mortality and its feast upon the body to bring him down in “ICU.”
One expects personal and possibly erotic poems, from the title and the idealized pair of bodies on the cover, but what Zaccardi means by weight has more to do with the tragic pressure of our human condition and connectedness: “what if she eats the grave dust / under her own nails” he asks in the stunning first poem in the volume, “To Feast on the Flesh of Decay,” about a farm couple’s reaction to their stillborn daughter, and we are reminded of the betrayals contained in flesh and in living throughout the collection, the inevitability of grief and our attempted negotiations to keep it at bay.
Even in a poem in which a woman plays a mandolin so beautifully that it breaks down all boundaries between the speaker and a woman named Elaine, scars from a bypass surgery are part of the context. Scars, bruises, aches, wounds, overdose, fatal collision, drowning, war, blindness, HIV, the ravages of homelessness—in prose poems and enjambed poems—these are all parts of the musical instruments that make our bodies, the bodies that are ever-present in this, Zaccardi’s fifth collection of poetry.
I was taken by the author’s effective use of repetition—in “The Sound the Tree Makes,” for example, the prose poem becoming recursive chants in which he eliminates the punctuation, perhaps in homage to W. S. Merwin and an encounter he references in his book. After attempting to punctuate Merwin’s The Rain in the Trees, he realized years later what a mistake it was to try to do that:
“The tree fell in the forest because of deep freeze the tree fell
because it was another day because of gravity the tree fell
soundless onto shoulder-high snow the tree fell because the wind
Merwin signed the book for him and gifted him an eraser to rectify his intrusive punctuation, which he kept.
In several poems, Zaccardi feels deeply the corporeal suffering of others, the inevitably human suffering, for example, of those who are victims of homophobia and racism: of those who have killed themselves and of those locked in cages. In an elegiac pantoum, “Bring Us Together,” inspired by the quilt of remembrance made for victims of AIDS, Zaccardi writes: “The clearest messages are the easiest to misread.”
And how easy willful misreading can be, interpretations often antipodal, as in “The Ocean Is Always on the Outside,” in which Zaccardi alludes to the parable of Han Hsin who tells a washerwoman who gave him food when he was hungry that he would repay her someday, only to anger her for his thinking she wanted to be rewarded.
The poems in the collection suggest we are all incarcerated, in solitude, within the contours of the corporeal and what our bodies can endure, and what they can’t. Damage to the body—and death—are all parts of what living means. As “On a Cold Day in a Small Town Called Sunshine” points out, “breath rhymes with death.” Zaccardi successfully looks to give the reader an aesthetic experience, paying homage to the beauty to be retrieved from all of it.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 23, Issue 3.