Review by Jeramy Dodds, Lichen (Spring 2005)
Insomniac Press, 2004
111 pages, $11.95, paper
On the heels of Birney, Purdy, Lane, and Wayman, and sidling up to more recent works by poets such as Denham, Getty, and Babstock, Zachariah Wells' first book of poems Unsettled crafts a fleet of blue-collar poems that are surrounded by lyrical meditations on nature, character narrations, and place studies. Wells worked as an airline freight handler in the Arctic intermittently on Baffin and Cornwallis Islands for over seven years. Unsettled is 'distilled' from that time and is full of brawling, bawdy tales of curse-happy stoic males sentenced to the north. There is terse secular violence in poems like "Duck, Duck, Goose", "Jake", and "The Doctor, Over Supper, Recalls a Quirk / In the Medical History of Baffin Island". The latter is a poem in which the speaker is a northern doctor who reminisces: "we got a lot of gunshot guts / in men from Cape Dorset-" and "…the women got knocked up / to go South for abortions-". Most of Wells' strongest poems, such as "Scotty's Hand", "Litany of Arctic Samsonite", "A Whiff of Mussel Mud [both 1 and 2]", and "Bowhead" demonstrate cunning craft as we find the
…stench of maqtaq
drenches the Hawker, as it did holds
of Victorian whalers, the same reek
at sixteen thousand feet as a hundred
stripped crangs corrupting
on Pond's Bay floes-London's
streetlamps aglow and Oxford dons
dry 'neath baleen-ribbed brollies-
The second section of the collection, entitled "Tricks of This Craft", holds the most exciting and well-knit poems in the book. A major use of accented Anglo-Saxon derivatives and a minor use of smooth Latinates work to achieve the guttural grunt sounds so typically attached to the world of manual labour. In poems such as "Jake", a sense of breakage is evoked in the mud-sucking sounds and images:
Bull seal of a man he was. Flipper-huge
Hands and slung gut betokened a child's
Monstrous hunger for pleasure and love,
For spicy grub that gutted his stomach,
For booze that fuelled his rage's white fire,
For sex that sired nine at nine and twenty
And handed him so many cases of clap
The nurse let him swab his cock by himself.
Wells purposefully uses a sparse stock-house of vocabulary to both verify and redeem the narrations and personas found in this collection. His diction is parallel to the "work poem" ethic: these poems must be accessible to "workers," and Wells' "shipmates" to whom many of the poems in this collection are dedicated. Wells keeps the poems and character studies throughout this collection grounded and accessible by avoiding a wide-scale use of metaphor. Though each piece may be a larger metaphor in general, he allows his verse to operate primarily from an imagist and narrative platform, thus avoiding any large rift between reader and writer. This is not to say, however, that blue-collars cannot understand metaphor, for the collection evokes the feeling that they might, in fact, comprehend metaphors better than any poet. It is more to the point that Wells uses metaphors sparingly and only when necessary as an expression of the themes of existence/survival, as he states in the fourth section of the poem Qausuittuq: "…we burned all our metaphors / To stay warm".
However, if Wells' collection were scrutinized under the "oh-so-rigorous" academic lens, many of the poems would falter. What hinders a number of them is a shortage of resonant image organization and layered, thoughtful subject handling. This is mostly prevalent in the last three sections of the collection, causing many temperate and lacklustre conclusions. These sections mainly contain place-name poems, nature meditations, and a few character sketches. In many of the poems we witness Wells' talent backpedalling from the other great pieces found in "Tricks of This Craft". In poems such as "Quill", "White Row", "Not Quite Requited", "Aubade", and "Scavengers," we meet with standard subjects which receive no revitalization through Wells' handling. Instead they receive stock images such as "the first hint of winter's white kiss" and "the frozen bay / is a swath of white / but for one raven's / feather...". With poems such as "Scavengers", we see the cliché black/white and the important Native/European binaries played out with no sign of Wells' typical cadence, alliteration, or poignant compounds and kennings:
Under the midnight sun
A bored raven picks white bones
At the garbage dump.
A white man selects a dark
Mate outside the screaming bar.
The use of ravens in a book of Arctic poems is expected. Wells' failure to add any progressive images or exciting language is surprising considering many of the strong pieces in the collection. Lamentably, it seems the larger and more beautiful half of these poems remains hidden underwater. Perhaps several of them were included to balance out the collection by showing a larger spectrum of Wells' experience. Perhaps they were meant more as reminiscence. Either way, they offer more hindrance than help. In these last three sections, I was most excited about Wells' work with Nordic mythology, as he creates interesting mythopoeias around his own imaginings and/or experiences. I wish there had been more of these, and I hope Wells comes back to this topic in the future. This collection would have come off as stronger had the excellent poems of the second section been dispersed throughout, or better yet, if the entire book had been full of poems of this calibre.
Unsettled has hairline fractures from a lack of barriercrashing images as well as what amounts to a standard subject handling in some of the poems. This may be due to Wells' inconsistent craft which is coming into its 'own', having now left the major part of an apprenticeship. I heard Wells read in Fredericton a little while ago, and I was very impressed by the poems; they seemed to fill a different room in that context, and I was able to look at them somewhat differently when I read them again in the collection. I noticed on his website that he is making a recording of some poems from Unsettled. It will be worthwhile to hear them read in Wells' own voice. After reading the first collections of many poets in this country, I feel that Wells' Unsettled still stands tall above the majority, and it does so by merit of "Tricks of This Craft" alone. The collection is as the title suggests: unsettled. I'm sure Wells' next book will have me feeling as excited throughout as I was at the beginning of this one.