Jennifer Zilm. Waiting Room. (BookThug 2016).
For a first book, Waiting Room demonstrates Jennifer Zilm’s already strong talent & insight. She joins a large number of fine young poets emerging in 21st century Canada (far too many for any single reader to keep up with them all). It’s a bit sneaky, in that its first two sections, ‘Sugar Discipline: Dental Poems’ & ‘Academy of Fragments’ are rather playful & even light. Having read them I was highly entertained but also wondering a bit if her work might be directed at a rather small audience (how many poetry readers really get the ins & outs of working on a dissertation? wait: maybe more than I at first thought). But as she takes us further into ‘Singular Room Occupancy: Canto from Main & Hastings’ & ‘This Holy Room: the great listeners,’ & the dark nights of homelessness & mental illness, the book achieves a bleak yet open grandeur.
It’s a smart move, then, to show off some of her formal stuff with wit & comic timing in the first sections. A book that begins ‘At the end of my benefits my mouth holds a temporary crown’ & ends that sonnet for her dentist with ‘in my raised chair: I am enthroned’ definitely grabs my attention. She ends this short section with a poem to her ‘Mouth Guard.’ Anyone who’s had one can identify: ‘Clasp it / over the half-moon, / bottom teeth. // Cripple your sibilants. // Go to bed.’
‘Academy of Fragments’ addresses professors of different ranks, a committee (most likely her dissertation one), & the dissertation itself, as well as its aftermath. These are funny, & likely cut into still open wounds in any reader who’s been there. As when, in an email to the Full Professor, in response to his demand that she revise a chapter, she says: ‘I can’t go back to those vacant spaces. / It’s not that I can’t imagine what syllables filled them. / Once I start I can’t stop imagining everything else – ‘ There’s a mise-en-abyme if ever there was one. The ‘erasure’ of her dissertation leads to sharply acute fragments like: ‘A crucial part of a gulf / between this passage and imagination’; ‘Mode of thinking / continues in theology of lost’; ‘The explicit degrees of how’; & ‘Any definition is anthropology, / authors humanity, judgments / about the existence of something. // Therefore exclude scholarly investigation / altogether.’ All together, the poems in this section provide a dark comedy of academic (t)errors.
In the next 2 sections, Zilm seeks various formal means by which to enter the lives of others while not simply (& ‘lyrically’) vocalizing them as personae. She uses a lot of found material here, in a kind of mix-tape of their own words & those of doctors, artists, & others in the bureaucracies they must interact with. She’s also a master of titles, many of which set tones while unsettling any usual expectations. The first piece in ‘Singular Room Occupancy’ constructs the figures to come: ‘dually diagnosed / “hard to house” / adults.’ The poems that follow slip in & out of the figures, seeing them as clearly as possible, letting them speak for themselves. This makes them difficult to excerpt, as they are tales or long descriptions, laid out in long, nearly prose, lines or scattered across the field of the page. There are echoes & reverbs, as when early on, having ’let / poetry wake again. Calliope’, she tells of how ‘Jodi flails, a mixture of up and down in her blood. / Before her detox intake, her body is taught.’ That implied ‘taut’ says a lot about the disciplinary system she finds herself in. In a later poem, ‘Chemistry,’ we learn (or at least I did): ‘Up; see also: Powder / Down; see also: Heroin / — Speedball (v./n.) together.’ Between these moments, poems that narrate various lives under these signs, & that need to be taken whole. There’s art history, there’s math, there’s an erasure of Dante’s Canto Six of Purgatorio. After which, the lovely dark finale of ‘Elegy, a rain fragment,’ which ends: ‘Theft under / your chargeable offence, your diagnosis. Goodbye / from the boundary shore. If she said / that to me.’
‘This Holy Room/the great listeners’ slips into history to find examples of people on both sides of what the epigraph calls ‘Talking therapies,’ with important walk-ons by Sylvia Plath & Vincent van Gogh as well as their doctors. Again, the stories invite full readings, fragmentary as they are; it’s their gaps that count, & must be felt. Here titles once again do some heavy lifting, as in ‘Seven Seeing Parts for Dr. Barnhouse,’ of whom ‘Sylvia’ wrote ‘in her notebook: / There is nothing I can do that would make her / withhold her listening,’ but then tells us that though the good doctor perhaps gave Plath extra years of life, she forgot too much, perhaps including that. It moves through the doctor’s life, to end all too ambivalently: ‘We live out the parts of ourselves that aren’t patients / in (y)our blind spots; / dog whistle a dance in your tone deafness. // O great unseeing; O vast / withheld listening.’
In similar ways, Zilm explores van Gogh’s encounters with his doctors, their ways of trying to ‘cure’ the artist’s ‘delusions.’ Though there’s a moment of cutting mirroring: ‘Vincent diagnosed: this country doctor is in worse shape / than I am, / perhaps he can help me.’ Stories, then, whose fullness insists upon a complete reading, & some knowledge. Ziln shifts to what seems a more personal telling, including ‘Placing the Fragments: Instructions for Grieving an Unfinished Dissertation.’ The last few poems address the possibility of writing, of, it seems to me, possibly making this book: taking what she needs from others, as in the cento, ‘S.Elective S.Oothing R.Adiant I.Nventory,’ with its every line taken from other poets she was reading when she wrote it. Yet its ending has become her own, & looks back over the whole of Waiting Room: ‘When next we find ourselves / don’t give up the ghost. What we mean is / attend.’ Zilm has done a good job of doing just that throughout this fine first collection.