Scary, No Scary, Zachary Schomburg, Black Ocean, 2009
In Scary, No Scary, poet Zachary Schomburg conjures a self-made mythology populated by jaguars, black holes, hummingbirds, and Satan. From this bric-a-brac bestiary he sculpts a new and surreal mythos that, given the stale iconography of our present day—good and evil, life and death, success and failure—is rejuvenating and jarring.
In “The Darkness and the Light” (bastardized binaries riddle the book) he rewrites one tired axiom thusly:
Some people think it is Satan’s job to make what is wrong with this world, but those people are wrong. It is Satan’s job to make us choose between the only two things that are right with it.
I’m not even sure what that means, but I love it. Logic here is neither the point nor the point of departure. Schomburg swaps the magnetic poles, changing weather patterns, destroying the world.
Readers become amateur anthropologists; encountering the poems is something like discovering artifacts from an extinct race of proto-humans. Or, for that matter, future humans who traveled back into Earth’s distant past in order to escape a global apocalypse (a dying sun? a collision of a galaxies?) only to perish from flash floods or snake bites.
Which is to say, at first, we don’t understand a whole lot. A sense of disaster hangs over the poems: meteorites fall, lava flows, fire devours everything. But some things we never do get (what’s with the “wolf-spiders”?).
Myths depend on a certain cultural fluency (what’s a diamond-encrusted cross, after all, but a death machine dangling from a necklace?) so it’s not surprising that many of the poems don’t work alone. Indeed, some dead-end into clumsy punchlines (“let’s not stand here/with our fingers up our butts”), and others seem postmodern put-ons.
But as you progress, the poems begin to fit together, growing dense, pulling interstellar scrap into their gravitational field. In an early poem, arms amputated in a farm accident sprout tree branches. In a “New Kind of a Tree,” a child who climbs a tree (perhaps a former amputee?) transforms into a hummingbird. Then in “Falling Life,” a character falls from a tree and marries a hummingbird (perhaps a former tree climber?) and manages to live “a full life/while falling.”
The poems at times resemble equations, creating whole worlds out of a series of symbolic relationships. This comes to an apotheosis in “Dead Hummingbird Problem”:
Falling from trees becomes a new kind of flight. Everything that has died becomes a dead hummingbird. The dead hummingbird becomes the new atom. And the hearts of the dead hummingbird, unbeating and indivisible, become the new subatomic particle.
Enticing and fanciful as Scary, No Scary is, it drives to something universal: the religious sensibility hard-wired into our brains, our need to make meaning out of chaos and death.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We live in an imitation of life. We create meaning out of a bricolage of found parts—owl bones and twine, transistors and romance novels. We put the world in order; putting the world in order is not faithful to the world.
In “The Histories” the sweep of time is understood as a series of redecorations in a dining room. And the final, long poem “The Pond” (the book’s pinnacle, really) is something like a life simulator—a story of birth, life, and death in a vague space that feels like it was designed by aliens and constructed inside a bubble floating in outer space.
Whatever order we put on the world it will always be a false one. So perhaps what matters is the choice of illusion: Scary or No Scary?
“You should say/no scary.”
Robert Silva is a writer living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared
in The Quarterly Conversation and ZYZZYVA.