“…to test for the sweet certainty / of ripeness”: On The Zoo at Night by Susan Gubernat

Lisa Higgs

Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 114 pages. $17.95.

Rising out of experience—painful, beautiful, disruptive—The Zoo at Night offers an unflinching look at an imperfect world underlain with a conviction to hope. From the start, readers of Susan Gubernat’s collection are invited into contained environments and asked to question the expected and encounter the unfamiliar. Divided into five sections, the collection is as much a conversation between Gubernat—assuming a close connection between poet and persona—and her readers as it is a set of recollections between Gubernat and the people she has known best and loved in complication.

The poems that make up The Zoo at Night range widely in topic and image, but they often connect to ideas about ways in which care is given, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Each section introduces different forms of caring, and because caregiving falls so heavily to women in America, each section navigates ways women react to society’s expectations of their roles and desires. Gubernat addresses feminine representations in many forms: youthful, middle-aged, the crone. She embraces sensuality and sexuality while also questioning the care between those in love. She revisits the motivations of motherhood: what suggests more care, having or not having a child?

Allusive and ekphrastic poems transport readers to disparate places and characters—Etruscans, Mata Hari, Atlantic City, The Roosevelt—and make us consider, as in “The Right Hand of Goltzius,” the

                              naked
hubrists, each tumbling, solitary,
into the void—Phaeton, Icarus,
viewed from behind, too late,
limbs flailing decorously: powerful,
useless musculature in free fall.

This collection is rightly tied to the nighttime, and Gubernat does not exempt the characters that populate her poems from kinship to animals in a zoo—at times curiosities, at times caged threats. The beauty of these poems is most often born out of a hardened wisdom gained almost by default through surviving a childhood that causes the poet to imagine “my dark fantasy of fingertips pierced / and sewn together” or relive a woman (likely mother?) who would “mold buckshot / dwarves for us to feast on.” This childhood, detailed in a series of sonnets that form the collection’s second section, “Analog House,” is rich in its mixture of seemingly positive recollection—a yeasty cinnamon Easter loaf resting on a windowsill, a child painting by number, a corner store’s penny candy—and dark imagery that transforms common household items into the ominous. A piano bench without a piano has a “lid like a coffin / of the undead.”

No poem better harnesses this tension between image, idea, and form than “Photo on Pony,” which uses the first six lines of the sonnet to introduce three street hawkers, “Knife-grinder; vegetable peddler; that man / with cameras” who offers snapshots that “Make us beautiful on horses.” This trinity offers perhaps unnecessary wares, and women “dealt with them” in lines seven through nine, which introduce a mother figure who responds affirmatively to the italicized queries of the peddlers. Yet the final five lines jump out of this domestic moment into a memory of violence:

They sent bad boys to the farms for theft,
for slashing another boy’s wrist. I saw
him run through the schoolyard, bleeding;
the other was wielding a kitchen knife,
after him still. Mister, take your best shot.

Gubernat’s final sentence jars readers back into a potentially positive domestic scene of children on a pony, while equally asking a knife-wielding “him” to likewise “take your best shot.” The only true rhyme of this sonnet occurs in lines nine and fourteen with the words “got” and “shot”—and the words encase the violence and merge that violence with a cameraman getting his shot. On rereading the poem, Gubernat’s use of alliteration—“peddler,” “panniered,” “pony,” “picture” just in the first four lines—takes on the sound of shots, camera or otherwise. Her repetition of the word “got” in lines eight and nine are likewise jabbing. What might be a moment of caring—a woman paying to have her child photographed on a pony—instead veers into threat, particularly the threat of men.

In this collection, care is not domesticized, and we readers are not exempt from our own hubris and self-interest. The poems in The Zoo at Night’s third section juxtapose scenes of a childhood’s uneven parenting with the poet’s need to later care for her parents as they grow infirm. In the titular poem that leads this section, the mother no longer is an attacking tiger but a lowly insect:

not walled in or moated,
fenced, restrained behind bars,
but growing luxuriant in that garden
we once called home.

The father, meanwhile, suffers memory loss and “is most the moon, the pursed-lip moon, not speaking / this absent presence, this invisible drag on the tides.” Has he, like the father in “La Sebastiana,” eased “open the doors of daughters’ rooms,” or was he simply indifferent, the shadow before the shield in “No Warrior”? Such conflicted caregiving makes the poet remember, “Instead of children, I’ve found dogs I could abandon” and reflect on not having children when faced with a delectable baby on an airplane.

By working a great deal in form, particularly the sonnet and sonnet sequence, Gubernat addresses complicated issues surrounding what it means to care for, to care about, to be cared for by another. Gubernat’s sonnets are chambers that cohesively root into a multitude of disparate subjects without losing the threads that hold The Zoo at Night together. Not all lines reach pentameter, and the second stanza in her sequence “Fonder” inexplicably contains twelve lines to the other stanzas’ fourteen; however, her attention to detail and her interesting use of off- and internal rhyme suggests a poet who is assured in her formal play.

With a steady tone and a voice that garners trust and growing power, Gubernat leads readers to a space where the “I” of her poems could as easily be you, the reader, just as her “you” could be “we,” and her “we” all of humanity. When Gubernat asks “What am I doing here but arranging for death?” in “Day Lilies,” readers cannot help but feel her struggle is our own. Her precisely imprecise pronouns throughout The Zoo at Night make readers the audience and the actors, the observer and the observed. Much of what we observe is the mess of life, and it is to Gubernat’s credit that she can pull from the weight of a full, imperfect life the ripened sweetness of one perfect pear.

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