Fjords vol. I by Zachary Schomburg, published 2012 by Black Ocean
I found Fjords on a shelf in the poorly lit common area of a low-income apartment building in Portland that my friend was moving out of. I flipped it open to a random page and read, “I had a difficult dinner with the feelings. We sat at the far ends of the table and looked down. I wanted to pop a red balloon or put my head in a ceiling fan.” I shoved the book in my purse. It’s small and fit easily. The overhead light didn’t work on the bus ride back to Seattle. I just sat in the dark. It was a rainy December night and the lights along I-5 were smeary. I sat in the dark thinking about how a new love affair might already be over, left behind in Oregon, ready to be scraped off on the door jamb of a new year. The book rode in my bag, not yet read, forgotten.
I read Fjords on a city bus several days later on my way to work. The poems in the book are all in the shape of paragraphs. Paragraphs full of complete, grammatical sentences. This puts me at ease because I don’t understand poetry. I don’t understand the line breaks, the rhythms or the shapes. It’s like not being able to harmonize with another singer, or not knowing which colors look good together. But sentences—sentences I get. There is a lot of comfort in sentences.
And the sentences come in paragraphs, nice rectangular paragraphs. The words are like a gas filling a rectangular container to its edges. And the words are like tiles that fit together neatly. The sounds of the syllables fall into place, marching across the sentence, marching out to the edge of the line, filling up the paragraph. But the images that the words create are like weeds tangled in a raised bed, fighting for the light, flourishing out in every direction.
The common thread of all these poems is death. Not death itself, so much as what death you’re going to get. Schomberg imagines all your possible future deaths live in a fjord practicing their songs, but each one of us gets only one death, so only one death sings for us in the end. Other things that crop up a lot: strawberries, black swans, trees, cats, blood, children, childbirth, burning airplanes and a woman named Barbara. If you would like to know how much each one of those things crop up, you do not need to flip through the 57 poems on 57 pages to count them up. There is a helpful index in the back. You can see it says, “Hands, holding or falling off, 6, 7, 24, 26, 33, 36, 46, 48, 56.” Also, “Refrigerators, 28, 29, 55.”
The fifteenth poem, on page 15, “The Animal Spell,” imagines falling in love with a black trumpeter swan. It ends with the sentence, “And love is just our own kind voice that we whisper into our own blood.” The first part of each paragraph poem is often an absurdist dream full of things like refrigerators, grocery stores, and blood dripping down from trees. The last line is often the most quotable, like someone’s last words: “Either way, I’m not breathing until everything unravels back into blood and string” (“Breath-holding Championship,” page 26). Not always though: “And our hands were pinecones” (“Behind a Wall of Animals,” page 36).
You look at pictures long enough, you watch movies, you read comic books—you forget what it is people can do with words when words are all they have to work with. Words have a look, a sound, a feel. They strike our eyes and fall on our ears. We make them with our own mouths. That’s why there’s still just reading. That’s why we still just read sometimes.