In Zachariah Wells’ third book, Sum, nearly half of the poems are written, perhaps paradoxically, with reference to the life and work of others. Included in this select brotherhood are labourers and mathematicians, poets and economists, scientists, theists, atheists. The constraint opens up a range of subjects and perspectives through which Wells explores questions relating to states of being and how language can respond to these states. What pressures are put on in alternative psychological or neurological states? What is it to be a deep-sea creature, still trying to breathe, on the deck of a boat? What does living mean after the life you’ve known has been stripped from you?
To this last point, “Biography of a Yardlong Spike” draws on a true story about a railroad worker who survived having a tamping iron shot through his head:
became, in a flash of lit
powder, Phin’s drunken
father, the mother who
never spoke love . . .
. . . It was the
stylus that scratched
dark, indelible signs
on the page of poor,
poor Phineas Gage.
The spike marks the end of what Phineas Gage was, while forming the core of his identity after the accident. Shaped as it is, the tool embodies both the “slim barrow”, a sort of grave, as well as the identifying pronoun referenced later in the poem “I,” “into which to stuff / a life.” Imagery of impalement is picked up again, hauntingly, in “The Wound:”
It didn’t bleed, but would seep a bit of lymph
on Sundays. . . .
. . . Once, I saw
a hummingbird moth hover above it,
then bury her proboscis deep in the folds.
Some of Wells’ strongest work is found in his use of verse forms that exert their own pressures, such as in “Mental Moonshine,” and in his sonnets—Sum has several—where the writer often explores dualities.
Wells uses line breaks to great effect in “To the Blobfish”:
aquiver on trawler deckboards as though plopped
untimely from a jello mould, you’re not
exactly what I’d call grace embodied
“What is grace?” seems to hover, unasked, over the lines; the answer breathes new meaning into an old expression:
following a four hundred fathom haul
from the niche in which you’re fittest—is a law:
in the dark, you won’t need a pretty face;
those pressures refine the idea of grace.
Fishing imagery reappears in “Sunk Costs,” where “bloated / bait lingers on my line.” The poem, and Sum as a whole, is marked by rhythm that snaps like a snare-drum, punctuated by the occasional rim shot at a line turn:
if I don’t brake or bail, it’s because I can’t
go on, but, like Sisyphus . . .
. . . I must.
This sonnet cleverly draws on Daniel Kahneman’s two-stage theory of “behavioural economics,” as well as the story of Sisyphus, to explore tensions between obligation and futility, investment and reward.
Sum closes with a final word on the “vertical pronoun”: all “I”s, in the end, must submit, in one form or another, to the barrow. With any luck, though, it will have experienced some unexpected moments of grace, like the ones found peppered throughout Sum:
I need you now. I’m under the table
with supernova stars in my eyes. Take me
home before they burn out. I’ll miss them.
Alison Goodwin lives and writes on a farm near Grassy Lake, Alberta.
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