Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Death Poetry Slam

A couple weeks ago, one of my students came into my office and asked if I knew of any zombie poetry collections. As it happened, I did not. While working on my thesis, and this blog, there had always been a nagging awareness that I had left a conspicuous gap in my knowledge of zombie literature. Either zombie poetry did not exist in any serious way (which would be a bit of a chink in my cultural ubiquity claims and need to be addressed), or I was simply overlooking what might be a fun and important manifestation of the zombie craze. For whatever reason, I had never pursued an answer to this question and instead was quite comfortable focusing my energy on novels, short stories, blogs, etc. Thankfully, someone came along and gave me the nudge I apparently needed to finally seek out zombie poetry. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Disclaimer: I’m not a very avid poetry reader. Don’t get me wrong, I like poetry. I was completely comfortable dissecting Shakespeare’s Sonnets for a summer course or memorizing “Ozymandias” for another (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” - that poem kicks ass), and I like analyzing wordplay and meter when I have to, but poetry is not something that I get into too much in my free time. This, more than anything I’m sure, is why it took me so long to find out that not only is there zombie poetry out there, but that some of it is actually quite good.

Photo: Rachel Green (I think)
Which brings me to “Isabella” by Adam Huber. This poem hit me, man. I’m not going to reprint it here, because I don’t think that would be very fair to Huber, but the poem can be found in the unfortunately titled Vicious Verses and Reanimated Rhymes: Zany Zombie Poetry for the Undead Head (I can only assume that Don’t Take These Poems Seriously was already taken as a title; perhaps unsurprisingly, collection editor A.P. Fuchs is also the author of Getting Down and Digital: How to Self-Publish Your Book - A Step-By-Step, No-Nonsense, No-Hype Guide to Successfully Publishing Your Book Yourself,  and founder of the Just Keep Throwing Words at It Until You Run Out of Space School of Book Naming –  ok, I made that last part up). Awful, goofy title aside, the collection is actually quite good and can (and should) be purchased here. “Isabella” is one of three poems included on the Amazon “Look Inside” preview of the book, and the first poem in the collection overall. Although I won’t go so far as to call the poem technically brilliant, there is a beautiful horror to it that is both affective emotionally, as well as terribly effective at conveying everything that makes the zombie figure so dreadful: the uncertainty of its origin, an utter loss of self, the awful familiarity of a monster that used to be someone you loved, and the sheer terror of a world whose rules have all inexplicably changed forever.

The second stanza of the poem, which explains the relationship between the crying “I” and bile dripping “she” of the slightly disorienting opening stanza, serves to highlight these last two fears with particular severity. Although “she,” Isabella, used to be someone else “before it all started,” most notably her father’s daughter, their relationship has changed forever from parent-child to hunter-prey. The horror, here, is almost immediately located in the troublesome gap between what was and what is. As terrifying as it would be to have any zombie hovering above the speaker with its jaws agape, this zombie is terrifying precisely because of who she was before she was trying to eat her father’s face. Repeatedly, the poem refers back to that time before – a fever from a bout with the chicken pox, a swing set built for her sixth birthday – recalling the girl the speaker knew and loved before she became the hungry “beast” on top of him. His memories of then, when family still only meant “everything,” make it impossible for the speaker to accept the realities of now; it is his familiarity that paralyzes him, keeps him from fighting back, prevents him from trying even if he “should.” A monster who behaves nothing like his daughter, who doesn’t love or even recognize her father, whose “empty” eyes see nothing beyond rage and hunger, but who still looks so much like the girl she once was, freezes the speaker. Incapacitates him. And ultimately gets him killed… for now.

This idea of a debilitating monstrous familiarity is far from new. Indeed, zombie enthusiasts should readily recognize it as a concern that has existed in zombie fiction as early as Night of the Living Dead, when Barbra wilts at the sight of zombie Johnny and Helen Cooper lays there helplessly as her zombie daughter Karen brutally murders her with a trowel. Obviously, by the time Dawn comes around we see characters like Peter,
who doesn’t hesitate to shoot his stricken friends in the face, but there has been no shortage of characters since then - whether in film, literature, or television – who have simply shut down at the sight of a loved one returned. What separates characters like Barbra and Helen or, more recently Andre (Mekhi Phifer) in the Dawn of the Dead remake from characters like Peter, Selena from 28 Days Later, and Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead, is the ability to adapt to an awful new reality and play by the new rules. 

The speaker in “Isabella,” a heartbroken husband and father, has clearly not adjusted to the world in which he finds himself, a world where family means nothing, where being her father means nothing, “not to her, not anymore,” and sentimentality is nothing more than an invitation for dull teeth to crush his windpipe. The world has changed as irrevocably as his Isabella, but the speaker doesn’t, and can’t, change with it. This clinging to the past, to old rules and relationships, is what ultimately costs the speaker the last thing he has left to lose: his Self.

Have a beautiful Tuesday.

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