Viking Ships

Exhibit 21.24


Scary, No Scary

Zachary Schomburg’s new book begins with a choice between scary and no scary. Wisely, it advises you to choose no scary, but it’s an empty question. There is only scary here–scary jaguars, scary wolves, scary spiders, scary wolf spiders, scary black holes. And so it’s easy to say this is a book about fear, about a darkness in the world we recognize in our youth and, most of us, forget as we grow. Take the poem, “The Old Man Who Watches Me Sleep,” which ends:

If you have a soul
it may have been put in there backward.

There’s something so innocent in that “there.” After expressing uncertainty about the existence of the soul, the narrator accepts it as something physical with an intended space and, as a result, something malleable, something corruptible, something to be inserted, possibly incorrectly. Just like the old man who has wings coming from his chest rather than his back (“a mistake”), the easy readings here are warped by wonder. The old man is not an angel, he’s something else entirely, something terrifying not only because of his presence but because of what his flaws mean about the uncertainty in the world he shares with the narrator. This, then, is a fear that rises from imperfect comprehension and incomplete metaphors, the world as a cipher, its symbols dark.

Outside of a poem titled “This Is What You Need to Know about the World, Pretend Son,” the book pushes furthest in this direction during a section titled “The Histories,” an escalating series of short poems which sever understanding. Here’s “The Floor Age”:

The chandelier crashes.
There is no chandelier.

There is, of course, also something child-like in this sort of a game which seems to push into those dark places of the world to see how close one will allow themselves to get (like a child keeping a flashlight off for the rush of fear until they just can’t take the darkness). But the poems here create a beautiful, haunting world out of this fear and, ultimately, build toward a final long poem, “The Pond,” where the world is all the more scary seen through mature eyes. Our comprehension has never been made perfect nor our metaphors complete. We may not be afraid of darkness, but that does not mean we are not afraid of what we’ve become:

I haven’t done everything I’ve wanted.
I haven’t made one of those Viking ships
with a dragon the bow.
I haven’t raided Europe.

It’s a very different sort of fear, but, I think, equally capable of creating the horrors of the world here as ultimately these gaps in language and meaning are what give rise to imagination. And good lord is there imagination here. It’s a funny, brilliant book about how we can’t choose no scary. Ever.

From Black Ocean

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