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This review is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

Cover of The Zoo at Night
David C. WardIs Poetry Interesting?
Susan Gubernat, The Zoo at Night (University of Nebraska Press, 2017) $17.95;
Stephen Burt, Advice from the Lights (Graywolf Press, 2017) £12.50
Is life all that interesting? I suppose some of the details can be but by and large the universal themes of the life cycle and making one’s way in the world create broad patterns that are familiar to us all and whose ubiquity leaches them of interest. Coming of age? Fashioning identity? Forging relationships? Aging, mortality and dying? Yup. We’ve all been there! The template is pretty much the same for everyone so how to stand out in a crowd is the question. Narcissistic self-assertion seems to be in vogue at the moment; people lie a lot, ‘curate’ the presentation of their lives on Instagram and shout on Twitter. Since poets, presumably, are more sensitive and acute souls they have to find quieter ways to make life interesting to their readers so its style that counts. The Zoo at Night by Susan Gubernat and Advice from the Lights by Stephen Burts offer contrasting ways of getting through the life cycle.

Gubernat takes a familiar tack, writing loose, slightly prose-y, lines in which an ordinary situation or reflection takes a swerve into the unknown or the unsettling. Order is asserted as something wished for but seldom attained – from ‘Spirit Level’:

What could we do but measure ourselves
and be found wanting? The straight shall be made
crooked. But I was a cock-eyed optimist
for a time, convinced the air-bubble would hit

She has a series of poems on homey subjects – the spirit level or a feather duster and one ...


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