Marc Zegans’s new collection of poems, The Underwater Typewriter, is poetry made tangible. One can feel it as well as see it, smell and taste it as well as hear it. Like a work by a master craftsman, it is beautifully and delicately wrought; yet the poem invites us to take it up, turn it over and see how it is constructed.
Take the poem “Salvage;” it tells of three shipwrecks, beginning with the words:
On the third wreck the damage is greater.
With great economy, Zegans synopsizes the entire poem in a simple sentence. He sets the scene, implies backward progression in time, and simultaneously shows us a thing in decay. The oldest wreck found is the first one we see, forcing our perception of the narrative to work against itself.
The poem continues with the process of degradation:
when element and corroded piece lie
wedged, current carried, sanded, scattered
in rift and rise, ripple and rip on this
unsounded ocean floor…
The alliteration of the language becomes onomatopoeic and parallels the ebb and flow of currents that heave the wreck to and fro on the sea bottom.
The appropriateness of sound and rhythm in this poem is critically important. The sonorities of the poem alternately hide and reveal the emotional and bodily paradox of the sea: inviting yet terrifying, embracing yet dangerous, familiar yet alien. And beyond alien; the sea is deeply, darkly strange.
The three shipwrecks become the embodiment of three stages in a single life, those stages as perceived in memory, and three generations of life. First we encounter old age to death in the “third wreck”: decay beyond repair; attempts to piece together a picture of a life from scraps; futile yet alluring speculation on what once was or might have been:
Collage, perhaps deluded? It’s not clear.
Yet we haul and fondle worn bits, gauging
texture and mass, function and fit, and loss
holes and breakage, sometimes signifying.
Ending on an unfinished, frustrated note.
In the second wreck, we meet with young adulthood to middle age: a belief that a wrecked life or person can be repaired, healed, or improved by extensive and strenuous effort; education and upbringing can form one positively and be used to develop a sense of vocation. The damage done can be made good, and to a higher standard than that of the original making:
with deeper gloss and more correct
than original ever could have been
a present construction of living past
coming to life only when it breaks down
The second wreck will be repaired by shipbuilders whose ministrations are like those of reconstructive doctors who go beyond the original.
The third and last wreck we encounter—the “first” and youngest of the poem—has been gashed once by being crashed into a reef. Although the breach was serious enough to sink the boat, there seems to be less visible damage. Hurts are felt keenly, but can be mended more readily than at later stages. However, there is the frustration and sadness of a child at not being acknowledged or listened to, and an air of innocence in the face of abuse:
The wounded boat waves, sorry and hollow
“I’m innocent, I didn’t ask for this.
I was ever alert, scanning the floor.
It didn’t matter. They didn’t listen.”
Thus, the old “third wreck” in the poem’s beginning, and the young “first wreck” in its conclusion, find common ground in their weakness and helplessness. The end of the poem circles back to connect with the start.
In the poem “Lotería,” Zegans uses the cards of the Mexican bingo game as a form of fortune-telling by tarot. A man alone with a deck of lotería cards seems to shuffle or sort through them, dealing himself a card after mentally asking a question of his absent lover, whom he will see in the evening:
Will you bring me the gift of luck
tonight, my love? Or press in my hand
a wrinkled cardboard icon, corners
frayed, el paraguas, for the rain
or perhaps the sun, if luck
should shine from your heart
In four units of two stanzas each, two different cards are turned up, with the traditional riddles that hint at the symbol on each card (el paraguas = para el sol y para el agua / the umbrella = for the sun and for the rain) worked into each question that the man asks his lover.
In turn, various symbols from the lottery game (the heart, the bottle, the star, and the pear, among others), make their appearance in the man’s questions. The questions in the stanzas that parallel each other recall folk songs about love; this fits in with the lottery, since the lotería bingo caller is called el cantor (the singer). In the last stanza, the man implores his lover to come with him, and answers his own questions with a prediction.
Although the poem assumes a light and humorous tone, in referring to the hackneyed symbols of a pastime, yearning and anxiety hide just beneath the surface. The mock-light-opera tone of a lover’s fortune told by the cards contrasts with the passion running through each stanza.
In “Lotería,” Zegans interweaves the separate threads of game, dialogue-soliloquy, song, and tarot together beautifully. The poetic conceit of a game of chance never seems forced or awkward. The poem is as tangible and as intelligible as the deck of cards it portrays.
“And I Knew” presents a different sensory experience. A stark song of betrayal and hurt, it communicates through a wrenching succession of rhyming quatrain stanzas in iambic dimeter, which is rarely found in English verse. Successive stanzas are tied in pairs by their rhyming sounds
A ⇒ A ⇒D ⇒ D ⇒ …
B B E E
C C F F
B B B E
giving the impression of links in a chain or a patterned string of beads. The short, choppy meter:
I lost myself
erased, my friend
leaving only scrim
strikes like a punch in the gut. The physical impact of harsh emotion lashes out freshly in every stanza, leaving palpably painful welts.
The short poem “Old Keys” speaks of memory, solitude, abandonment, concealment, sadness, loss of purpose, and distance. Two-line unrhymed stanzas serve as metonyms for the disused keys on a ring. Each key unlocks a different door in some period in the narrator’s life, the recollection bringing fresh sorrow at what has been lost.
The use of stanza structure and shape on the page in “Old Keys,” to stand for the act of sorting through a collection of linked physical objects, is reminiscent of the structural metaphors in “And I Knew” (chain links or rosary beads) and “Lotería” (a deck of cards). Zegans has enriched the expressiveness of his poetry with rhythm and even the look of words on the page.
The book’s title poem, “The Underwater Typewriter,” is a humorous fantasy about the conversation between a sea otter and a selke. The otter narrates his meeting with the selke as he gathers sea urchins for his midday meal, in the ocean off the California coast. The younger selke boldly accosts the older otter with flirtatious humor and follows him, bringing a hint of May-December interspecies romance to their chat.
While they float in the waves, the otter tells the selke the human history of the Big Sur coast. When he finishes, the selke praises his knowledge, and hints at a future meeting when he will tell her more stories. The otter takes leave of her abruptly by diving again; but is the selke ready to leave him?
The light, informal structure of the poem perfectly complements its delightful whimsy.
The Underwater Typewriter contains eighty-one poems that function as a meta-poem, a carefully constructed form of collage. I have described only five, and very crudely. However, I hope that these accounts will convey some sense of the physical and emotional directness of of Marc Zegans’s poetry, and encourage readers to explore them—not just through reading, but by touching and feeling them.
The Underwater Typewriter will be published by Pelekinesis at the end of September 2015.
For information about the book, please visit:
All artwork, descriptions, & other text [except for cover designs, public domain material, & quotations] created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.