A Review of Jason Zuzga's Heat Wake — March 5, 2016
by Christopher Nelson
Even though I am not a betting man, I would bet that no other book in existence begins with epigraphs by seventeenth-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne and pop superstar Madonna. The unexpectedness of that juxtaposition tells of the heretofore unconsidered places Jason Zuzga takes us in his debut, Heat Wake: a pork fry at the Galaxie Motel in a small town in Utah, a time warp caused by looking into a liver spot vortex on a one-time surfer's aged hand, a cuddle inside the body of an extinct gargantuan sea cow, etc. These epigraphs, however, do more than announce the book's eclecticism; they suggest minds remarkably curious and hearts passionately hungry—qualities evident also in Zuzga's poems, which are at times humorous and at times devastatingly vulnerable. But always these poems delightfully destabilize our readerly expectations: "You're not a kid anymore," he writes in the poem "Liquid Courage," a line he follows with, "You're not a gorilla anymore."
I don't recall having read in recent years a more effective embodiment of the literary absurd than Heat Wake. The comedic tones, incongruities, and fantastic circumstances address philosophical themes that their apparent lightness might veil. In "My Parents' Bathroom" a boy seems to be wasting the day playing with talcum powder, spying on the swimming neighbor, and being transported by tropical fantasies induced by Paul Mitchell shampoo. It's all fun and games, yet by the end of the poem Zuzga has led us to reconsider the scene: implicit is the minor horror of being bewitched by the material, the alienation felt in homogenous suburban life, familial absence and disconnect.
But it would be reductive to label these as absurdist poems and leave it at that; to do so would neglect the visionary evident here. Zuzga shows us that behind the hallucinatory hides truths we don't know yet. (Remember, the Fool is the smartest person in the room.) In "Lullaby" he writes, "Watcher, companion / as the final solar storms begin. / There is a house inside your medulla oblongata. / There, retract now and reduce." Comical and sometimes metaphysical, Zuzga deftly employs conceits to illustrate difficult truths. My new favorite simile is in "Brother Poem," where ambulance men carry the speaker's ill father across the front yard in a wheelchair "like C3PO mistaken / for an Ewok god." The loss of the father, the complexities of time and love—traditional lyric concerns woven together with iconic images from pop culture create a world deeply felt and wonderfully habitable.
Most powerful, however, in Heat Wake is the sustained examination of conflicted identity, a motif exemplifying the psychological challenges of stigmatized gayness. In "The Riddle" the speaker's body, transformed by the sphinx, is "front-half lion, back-half deer," and his lion self eats the flank of his deer self as the deer self tries to run from what it also is. Or consider the "twins" of the poem "Counting"—twins in quotes because they are actually the two selves of the speaker: "One of me is in Canada, / the other one of me is in Rhode Island." The young man moves away to college and has sex with men, "like bursting up / from the ice," while another aspect of the same self is still imperiled, as if "spiked … on the tines [of a fork]." The coming-out process spans a few poems in the latter half of Heat Wake—an inevitable exploration for a book that declares in its first poem, "All rocks are queer. By this I mean / I'm gay." And while it is a largely joyful ("entirely covered with happy juices") experience, it isn't without estrangement and loss: When a friend from the past calls and says, "we miss you," the speaker responds, "I miss me too." The speaker evolves, embraces his freer self, and finds love, but the specter of social judgment doesn't simply vanish. When two men stand together on the beach holding hands, they "become an H"—i.e., a visual metaphor: two capital I's joined—or "[they're] simply faggots. Two sticks in the sand."
I've been praising Zuzga's vision and tone, but his formal inventiveness is also remarkable. In "Chocolate Milk Puzzle" the same stanza repeats nine times, but in each iteration, the stanza self-erases to become a briefer but entirely distinct poem; the whole moves from nostalgic playfulness to existential bewilderment, but you'll laugh all along the way. In "Lucy in the Vines" an allusion to Gepetto and Pinocchio leads us to this brilliant moment: "You, there. Yes you there boygirl napping senseless in the catapult. / Shall you become real and trapped in temporary life?" Always the innovation is in service of some larger theme, and at this Zuzga consistently succeeds. At the end of the book we circle back to the father, now dead from cancer. The disease is personified as
… a single cell gone mad with
self-involvement, fruity exponential, then
malignancy, as one cell slips loose, aloof from mass,
flouncing in between the tissues, undetected,
feeling blindly for a bloodfed roost to mutter only of itself.
It is appropriate that the opening poem is titled "Elegy," and no, it isn't ironic that it is a love poem, for it, like the others in the book, is an example of a heat wake, of the warmth of life that gets left behind. The best we can do is love it all as it passes from us. Thanks to Jason Zuzga for so lucidly reminding.