Alex Lemon On Jason Zuzga

In this new series our friend, and Editor-at-Large, Alex Lemon will celebrate books from the Saturnalia backlist — we hope you’ll fall in love (perhaps all over again) with these books like we continue to do over and over again:

heatwakefrontcoverfinalThis August, after spending the evening hours watching the Olympics with my family, I startled awake in the middle of the night with a line from Jason Zuzga’s Heat Wake ricocheting around my head: No Olympic sport involves the tongue, from “On Being Held.” For weeks, preparing to teach it this fall, I’d been rereading Heat Wake so I found it on the coffee table and that night read it again from cover to cover.

I love Heat Wake because of the many ways it loves.

Heat Wake is filled with wondrous poems that speak directly about love/being love/the misfirings of love, but there is so much more adoration in this collection. These poems love language and verbal play, the panoramic intellect, humor, moments of doomsaying and this complex and fractured world that is slipping through our hands.
I’ve spent hours with the many lenses through which we see Eros in Zuzga’s book: the speaker addressing Rimbaud in “Homage,” the sensuality of cleaning someone’s ear in “Ear,” or “I was angry at myself for being a teenage mermaid,” the awesome beginning to the Tilt-A-Whirl movement of “Love Poem,” or one of my favorite’s, the speaker alive beside an intimate inside the body of an extinct Stellar’s Sea Cow in “Extinction Narrative,” where:

I feel the warm flesh on my face.
I can feel your arm around
me. I can feel thumps echo from
other Sea Cows, nuzzling ours.

Here come those intrepid explorers.
Let us be pointless.

But today, I’ve been spending all of my time on two poems where Zuzga directly addresses the reader: the book’s first poem “Elegy,” and the poem that begins the final section, “Lullaby.”

The last stanza of “Elegy” is so good it makes me want to howl. The first half of it plays with iterations, remixing the line “The rocks are not…” until in the stanza’s fourth line “The rocks are ignoring their edges,” before “The rocks are full of vibrational music” in the fifth, and then in the sixth, “The rocks move in your mouth,” before the waterfall and big hearted torque of the poem’s close:

You say Antlers. Alcatraz. Abyssynia.
With rocks in your mouth. Atlas.
Argon. Aluminum. Alabaster. 
Say these words with rocks in your mouth.
Arginine. Able. Africa. Assortment.
Aspire. Aorta. Australia.
I love you. I do. I love you

Because I love you, too, Dear Reader, I will let you go read “Lullaby” so you can see Zuzga’s deft passions at work for yourself, where “there is a house inside your medulla oblongata,” so you can feel its beauty and burden.

Heat Wake is one of those rare books that works in manifold ways—it gives to the reader, on every level—it is energizing, alive and deeply layered with knowledge and sensuous. This collection thinks and breathes in ways that make impossible not to feel, impossible not to read a poem and smile or sense the start of something burning in the chest.

-Alex Lemon