Book Reviews

Gabrielle Bates: “Sexy & Self-Quarrelsome”—On Zoe Dzunko’s Selfless

Selfless
Zoe Dzunko
TAR Chapbook Series, 2016

Yeats proposes that poetry springs from a quarrel with the self, and in Zoe Dzunko’s chapbook Selfless, this inciting act is present in the poems’ final iterations. Expectation and limitation—Dzunko brings to life the internal push and pull of both. The speaker slides in and out of her female bodies and all the expectations—socially prescribed, historically mandated, deeply absorbed—that come with them. By proclaiming the self’s absence in the title, the poet establishes a central, paradoxical desire the poems use as kindling. Selfless’s constant, cerebral burn flares thrillingly in the first short sentence:

The time you fucked
my face it felt like a feather.

Profane and lovely, bodily and abstract, human and animal—as Dzunko continues to pair such dichotomies together, the lines between them blur. At once violent and delicate, the speaker becomes, over the course of the book, a vessel inside which contrasting entities battle, swap fluids, and fuse. Time, fucked. Feather, face.

When I say this slim volume offers up, poem after poem, a violently sexy and scathing self-quarrel, I mean “self” much in the way Robert Hass defines it in relation to Rilke (another writer for whom the inward gaze proved a delicious abyss). As Hass claims, the “self” is something inside us that is not life, but rather “stands outside natural processes and says, ‘That’s life over there’”—more akin to death’s lover than anything else.

But in Dzunko’s work, death stokes many lovers. Accordingly, in her monostrophes and long-lined couplets, Dzunko quarrels with myriad selves—constantly taking to task the female speakers’ various personas, desires, and aesthetic impulses as they arise.

From “Absolution”:

Rejecting your own
privilege feels more and more
to me like a privilege in itself.

Here, Dzunko offers a rejection of a rejection; it’s an unmasking act that reveals yet another mask. The many-masked face here is privilege: a word that pairs readily with—though does not exclusively pertain to—whiteness.

Though seldom literally stated, whiteness, in Selfless, is no ignorable lens. Whether scanning the speaker’s surroundings or her own body, the critical gaze often attends to her white racial position, acknowledging privilege, squirming within it, poking and disturbed.

“Apologist,” an epistolary list poem, makes use of various repetitions (mainly the anaphora of “Dear” and the repetition of “never”) to simultaneously defend and critique the female speaker at its heart, primarily in regards to sex and sexuality. However, as an American in the year 2017, I can’t help but unspool the ramifications of a racial reading as well, especially as I’m conscious of how, historically, the sexual purity of white women has been used again and again as justification for systems—both sexist and racist—of oppression and violence.

The title “Apologist” suggests, perhaps, the poet’s quarrelsome intent (an apologist being, of course, someone who argues in defense of something controversial). But the notion of apology ghosts as well, appearing in one of the poem’s major turns, which is also where the subject of race rears.

Should I apologize for longing
to be the whitest horse
grazing the greenest pasture

Here, the poem’s declarative listing becomes a question. The pastoral ideal of “the whitest horse” is coupled, in light of the book’s previous jabs at privilege, with the false racial ideal of whiteness. Thus, the poem’s dual critique and defense of the self ventures beyond the sexual shame of women to the racial shame of white persons.

As myths of beauty and racial superiority are historically linked in their constructions, the pairing of sexual and racial shame feels inevitable, a twinned shame traced back to the moment of birth, when the body is brought naked before the social gaze. And, sure enough, the poem ends with a desire to return to this pre-complicit state:

Dear sky, let me be as big
as I might have been before I was born

The items to which the poem is addressed (“untouchable grass”, “lie I told you at seventeen”, “dream of guiltless orgasm”, “every man,” and “sky”) underscore the subjects of physical touch, sin, and spaciousness, while many of the images (a self-drawn map in the dirt, “the whitest horse,” and “greenest pasture”) subvert and acknowledge authorities and aesthetic ideals. Sifting through the literal and emotional content of these lists, I’m convinced that under and among the sexual shame of the poem is another, racial shame.

The dual nature of the title “Apologist” is a lens through which to view the poem. In one sense, it implies a defense; in another, it frames the poem as an apology. Because I read “the whitest horse” as, among other things, whiteness as false ideal, the “defensive” sense of the title lodges in my brain, troubling me. Surely Dzunko is not seeking to defend whiteness here? Given the book’s earlier undercuttings of privilege, I feel confident saying no. Yet the question persists. What controversial thing, if any, is being defended in this poem? In a world in which many must navigate the knee-jerk defenses of white people, I can’t help but wonder if this door the title opens is, ultimately, doing the poem a disservice.

Perhaps the question (“Should I apologize for longing / to be the whitest horse / grazing the greenest pasture”) is more genuine, less rhetorical, than I give it credit for. Perhaps the white speaker is attempting to orient herself in relation to socially prescribed aesthetic hierarchies and genuinely grappling with the extent of her own implication. Admittedly, in the world the poem builds, the white horse is most explicitly symbolic of ideas of sexual purity, not racial purity. But, considering their historical intertwinings, can a white female speaker call the name of one without conjuring the ghost of the other?

At the etymological heart of the word “quarrel” is a cross bow, and thus—to continue with Yeats’ proposition—a poem is a type of hunt. In Selfless, the creature at which Dzunko’s bow aims shape-shifts; accordingly, her argumentative position quickly morphs.

From “Dry Flowers”:

The flowers do not grow fleshy once more
The flowers do not gro+& the people do not notify you
of their absence                           they’re just no longer around.
That is the risk every line takes.
Wait fuck that.

Here, Dzunko does a 180 pivot, swinging her bow around so quickly the arrow practically pierces her own after-image. This sharp self-correction, in addition to energizing the reader, furthers the book’s investment in the self as both victim and antagonist. The stakes are inherently high when the hunter is hunted, the hunted, hunter. Selfless uses this intellectual drama as fuel.

Different poems afford different pleasures, but the primary pleasure of Dzunko’s poetry in Selfless may be the ride of her mind from point to point, the ways in which the selves’ quarrels unfold—so surprising, yet satisfying—toward their ends. Great pleasure is similarly afforded by the moments in which Dzunko lets the seams of the poem (and thus, her speaker) show.

From “Sand Under Nails”:

bittersweet
is a word somebody else might use,
but not me;

From “Apologist”:

this is not the first time
I said this is the first time.

These moments of self-consciousness and antagonism are surprising, at times amusing, and contribute to the illusion that these events in language are the act of a mind unfolding in real time. By incorporating these swerves and self-corrections, Dzunko invites readers along on her mind’s exploration, and because she’s so smart, so strange and brazen, the invitation is a gift, even as—in this heartbreaking ending from the poem “Indolic”—it quietly destroys us.

—I am laying a body
out for the bees, but they never land
when you want them this much.

Gabrielle Bates is a writer and artist from Birmingham, Alabama, currently living in Seattle, where she works at Open Books: A Poem Emporium and serves on the editorial board of the Seattle Review, Poetry Northwest, and Broadsided Press. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Poetry, Best of the Net, the Missouri Review Poem of the Week, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, the Adroit Journal, Mid-American Review, and Guernica, among other journals. She is the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Hugo House, and the University of Washington. Find her at www.gabriellebatesstahlman.com or on Twitter: @GabrielleBates.