Thursday, February 5, 2009

Paul Zweig's Poetry

I've been re-reading Paul Zweig's wonderful book Eternity's Woods, which was published more than twenty years ago, shortly after he died, at forty-nine, of cancer. Zweig is better known for his prose--several volumes of memoir and philosophy. But as a fellow poet it's his work in that genre that I'm most drawn to. Here is a poem from Eternity's Woods:

The Perfect Sleepers

This light flooding my chair
Is too strong at six in the morning;
It was meant for the policemen prowling
In a room around some criminal,
His guilt a form of sleeplessness.

With half-shut eyes, I see horses motionless in a field
Except for their tails that flick away darkness,
Their eyes blazing like angels
On a beach in hell, bruised but noble,
For they left speech behind them
On their nightlong fall into the world.

Perfect sleepers, erect in the narrow field
Between thinking and dreaming,
Your large eyes merciful, but empty;
I take you with me into the grey milk of dawn,
Knowing your terrors are simpler than mine:
Afraid of puddles, rabbits, and the whip,
Not of promises kept or broken, not of breathing,
Not of love's forged signature
And its costly repairs.

The poem is pervaded by solitude, and melancholy, but also an unremitting clarity of vision and an honesty that can give us the horses' eyes "merciful, but empty," and "their tails that flick away darkness." In his postscript to the book Galway Kinnell says that whereas Zweig's prose came relatively easily for him, he struggled to get the poems on the page, and I think I can hear something of that struggle in many of the poems. But I don't mean that in a pejorative way. Zweig's poems are never glib, and, while they're relatively plain-spoken, they weigh each word carefully. They unfold steadily, with a kind of rueful self-awareness that is evident, for instance, in the way the speaker of "The Perfect Sleepers" implies that his insomnia is a kind of criminal activity, that he's been "caught" by the early sunlight, and that he is somehow guilty because he is unable to find the kind of peace that the horses experience, along with their "simpler terrors."

There is often a sense of the fragility of existence in Zweig's work, the narrow divide between "thinking and dreaming," between "promises kept or broken." Often, when Zweig's speakers look at other people, what emerges is affection conjoined with the notion of unbridgeable distances between them. In "Stanzas in an Emergency" the speaker observes his neighbor, who "emerges / In a clang of tumblers and doors, / With her sad nipples, her daughter vanished into permanent winter," and "the news seller on the corner, / His blind face, his daylong / Conversation with dimes and quarters." Zweig looks lovingly but honestly, no matter what he turns his attention to.

His books of poetry are apparently all out of print but can still be had from the "used" dealers online. C.K. Williams edited Zweig's Selected Poems, which came out in 1989 and includes his last work.


  1. It's so perfect that you responded to that poem of Zweig's ("The Perfect Sleepers"), because your description of what draws you to the work, the characteristics of it that you see, absent the melancholy (I must say), could be a description of your work, the sense of solitude, the distinctive clarity of vision, your extremely deliberate and close process of getting it onto the page, and of course never glib. Witness (and thanks for posting) "Hickory Nut Gorge."

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  3. Russ, I just discovered your blog and I want to thank you for reminding me of Paul Zweig and that C.K. Williams edited those final poems. Any poet who “…looks lovingly but honestly, no matter what he turns his attention to” is a poet I want to read. Poetry that asks me to be still, and to listen, is poetry I want to keep close. Thanks again for this post. And for your poem, too. Looking forward to more! Jeanie
    PS I posted this from 10,000 feet in the only SW plane with WiFi out of 525 planes. Thus the glitch above...

  4. I decided to Google Paul Zweig because I just bought his Whitman biography. I can't put the book down. His nuanced probing of Whitman is wonderful.
    And now I have Zweig's poetry to try.
    "lay reader....non-groupie"

  5. Just cleaning the basement, I found a fifteen-year-old copy of Zweig's "Selected and Last Poems," edited by C.K. Williams. I was attracted to the book by the poems' high aim. I didn't feel any of them fully hit the mark, though, until I read the last one titled simply "Poem." In this, evidently the last piece he every wrote, Paul expresses the seemingly ineffable--the terrifying joyousness of being fully alive. What a solid monument to create! even if, in the last four words, I think he pulls back from standing in full appreciation of his creation.