plex, each raindrop
a trick of machine
The life cycle of technology, it seems, begins with an idea of the future. This is followed shortly by obsolescence. What was once new becomes an embarrassing emblem, a precious bit of our past. Following this stage is nostalgia; here, inventions of yore become relics of an era and can acquire an aura of the talisman. Videotape, Andrew Zawacki’s fourth full-length collection introduces us to a strange, “Xeroxed” world of technological decay: airport parking lots, flailing wi-fi networks, saline flats, “hi-res /turquoise // & the cold.” If this world is terrifying, it’s because we can see it clearly and it was made by us. Sci-fi, post-apocalyptic, and rife with beautifully rendered dystopic landscapes, this book revels in both the earliest aspects of poetry—the internal logic of sound—and the technological contemporary, future, and near past.
Videotape is best in its creepier images and ideas. We encounter “a knife being sharpened to nothing” and learn that “the world exists to end up on DVD.” This landscape seems made up of eyes, mirrors, their refractions, and reflections. Zawacki writes,
That things mean by being: our
industrial trash barrel, curbside
at 5, recycling bin with a ziggurat
of Perrier bottles & Dr. Pepper,
prettier for the diffractions of
metal—41ALU upcycled, as sun-
light to scatter the sun—, a
sweepstakes envelope & its gaudy
This is a place with human things and few humans, a lot of batteries, cassette tapes and, of course, many VHS tapes. Where, the reader wonders, are we? There’s a sense, even though we’re not in every scene, we’re still recording, and broadcasting.
The reader is assured by Zawacki, “All’ll be made more beautiful for the tourists, including the tourists.” Some pressing questions remain: How do we deal with these technological half-lives? Is this a wasteland? Certainly, Zawacki’s ideas of the future appear with “Duracell birds” changing, eroding nature (featuring both the “peneplain” and the “esker.”) One hears “Noises that Skype us, scuff us awake,” and sees the bleak sign, “a clearance sale flogged on Commerce Road: EVERYTHING MUST GO.” Here, disturbingly, are the “Places named for people named for places somewhere else.” Even colors, as they exist in nature, are commercial products, “its Windexblue plane” and “baby aspirin white.”
Uncertainty reigns. The real and its reverse are eerily similar likenesses. In this world, it is difficult to separate the reproduced image from the original:
yesterday morning, an mp3 of
birds at the sill & clothing pinned to the line.
In addition to the mysterious visual of Videotape, Zawacki is a master at engaging the reader by his smart and natural use of sound devices. Phrases like “Georgia mid-/July, the trees halloo Tallulah/Gorge” create both a palpable sense of place and connect the words and images by their sonic qualities. This collection provides a wealth of outstanding examples: “lilies in italics, the lilacs underlined,” “spherical, / sapphirical,” “the seraphim shimmer of summer auguring off,” and “cyan à la / Cézanne:” These are lines meant to be read aloud. The reader finds words inside other words, as though Zawacki has hit a rock with a hammer and suddenly we get to see the geometry of a geode’s crystal. There is also a strong anagram sensibility to many lines, as in “neige & verglas: vigilance orange” forcing the reader to at once consider and listen to the lines.
Not every line is so precious, in fact, some are flinty with expletives, “I’m / scared to hell of the fuck if /I know.” And some of these lines feel as though Zawacki has excised all but an electrical vein of meaning. The phrase, “gun cotton fog” appeals to this reader, as the word “metal” is omitted; the color “gunmetal” is already in the reader’s head so that “gun cotton” can become both color and texture, a streamlined understanding of the fog.
In addition to this tight and precise attention to language, one of the most distinct aspects of Videotape is Zawacki’s use of broken words. With hyphenation, words are divided and are split between lines as in “to lifelike- //nesslessness,” “a thresh /-old of hunger,” and “blacktop format /-ions.” A few employ a French effect: “je /-rry-rigged” “je /-june” and some seem to carry a profound new understanding of the word: “per- /cussing his life,” “Lazar- / us.”
The broken word creates four effects: it mirrors back to us the whole unbroken word, each half, and the word we then read differently, after it’s been broken in half. The experience of reading these split words is additionally affected by whether the hyphen appears in the first or second half, that is, whether the reader is aware another part of the word will change the original meaning.
For example, in “sky/-line” the hyphen is included on the next line; one first reads “sky” and assumes the word will remain intact; the image is then multiplied into “sky,” “skyline,” and “line.” These appear frequently throughout the collection, (perhaps the least exciting is “hy /-phen”) and provide a turn in the poem where one reads both forward then backward.
Zawacki is also paying attention to the look of these poems on the page. In the first section of the book, “Track A Errormirror” they are poems as gorgeous columns. There’s an immediate beauty to these pages. While the outer edges of these columns appear sharp, they are internally made of erratic white space. Zawacki uses the column with a caesura so that shorter lines become flush with either edge. That caesura becomes a divisor, and those spaces between words take on new meaning.
Blank space is used prominently in the section, “Track B Lumièrethèque” as well. These short prose poems appear at the bottom of the page. White space exists above them, so that there is the implication of the footnote, or the fragment. They provide a different landscape, another view of the strange vistas in this collection’s world.
Writing into this hotbed of postmodernism, Zawacki provides “a view of the view/of the OMNIMAX sea,” the “Cell tower beacon a red / boutonniere,” but he never abandons a precise, sonic intention. Here, words, their meaning and sound, are woven into each other, (e.g. “stocked from the Reagan / years, its radar gone haywire.”) Zawacki achieves a great deal in Videotape, there is emotional accuracy, powerful, eerie atmosphere, and it joyfully raises the stakes for the reader to fully experience—aurally, visually, and intellectually—this poetry
LAUREN HILGER was awarded the Nadya Aisenberg Fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, where she was a fellow in 2012 and 2014. Her poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Cortland Review, DIAGRAM, Harvard Review Online, and Kenyon Review Online, among other journals. She serves as Poetry Editor for No Tokens Journal.