‘The Pedestrians’ by Rachel Zucker
You don’t really become aware of how much contemporary poetry relies on lazy mystification until you read something that doesn’t engage in it at all.
Rachel Zucker’s The Pedestrians is such a book. Rather, two books. Split into sections of roughly equal length, the 141-page collection is divided first into a book called “Fables” and second into one called “The Pedestrians.” The former consists of five fairly long, lyrical prose pieces and the latter of 43 poems, most of them lineated and some of them in prose, including several that are framed as dreams. What causes their being published under one cover to make sense is that both depict a process of unknowing or an unwinding of illegitimate—or perhaps just imposed—forms of knowledge.
One of the pieces of knowledge that both books unwind is the commonplace that humans are different from and hierarchically superior to animals. Many poets currently writing choose to plop animals into their poems to give a mystificatory sense of non-human strangeness—as a softly surreal way to indicate an inability to understand the natural world, or anything really. Zucker, on the other hand, is essentially suggesting that we are more like non-human animals than we are different from them, or at least that most of our differences with the animal kingdom come from stories we’ve made up about ourselves.
The first book, “Fables,” is dedicated to Zucker’s husband: “For Joshua, my animal.” This invocation is an early indicator that in these pages, animals are not going to be used merely as signifiers, but rather that they are key to the book’s ideas and themes.
Fable comes from the French which can mean “story” or “tale,” as well as “lie” or “falsehood.” Sometimes, the move of writing in a deliberately childlike, simple story-telling manner can feel like an empty posture. But done well, the fables are more like the Latin “fabula,” meaning “account” or “that which is told.” While Zucker’s fables are telling, her fables are moral-less. Spare and third person, the prose poems focus largely on places, but archetypal ones: “The Other City,” “Ocean,” “Apartment,” “Mountains.” A reader can tell that the city is Paris, but that’s not the point so much as the realization that “everyone in her city was exactly like everyone in this city and that they were all animals and that animals can only be animals.”
This book, like any good one, is full of clues as to how it’s to be read, and Zucker even suggests the importance of this archetypality by having her protagonist sit on the patio with “the big red book resting on her legs” reading Jung, and quoting him: “One should not turn people into sheep, but sheep into people.” And moral-less though they may be, her fables are not idea-less, and their ideas make them delightful, ideas like whether “peacefulness was antithetical to makefulness” and “If there was a present—and she was not sure that there was—it was made of anger.”
Of course, going back to Aesop, fables are animal stories or short comic tales that seek to make a point about human nature, typically by showing animal characters acting anthropomorphically. And in the “Fables” section, Zucker references Aesop, writing that her third person narrator, in a tense and stock-taking conversation with her husband, “thought of fox trying to reach a bunch of delicious-looking grapes on the high vine. The trunk was too straight, the bark too smooth, the first branch too high,” noting that, “Everything about the tree was unhelpful, wrote one of Aesop’s translators.” Here, Zucker’s reference to Aesop reminds the reader that he didn’t use animals for their strangeness either—he used them to show us to ourselves.
She makes this move—locating instances of a false difference and pointing out that they are false—in both sections to wonderful effect. In the (sort of) title poem, “pedestrian,” of the second book, for instance, she calls into question the distinction between the poetic and the pedestrian, writing:
… Jeremy thinks I’m
selling myself short selling short is what Jeremy
as a hedge-fund manager actually does are these
associative games worth their weight in ink? He’d
sell this short I bet this poem’s possibly timely
not likely timeless which someone once said
separates poetry from the pedestrian
Here, she explores how the meanings of allegedly sophisticated categories collapse if she just refuses to see them. These two instances of “selling short” might be the same. Instead of deepening the metaphor, Zucker lets it all fall apart and dissipate.
“I have no other, not even I,” she writes elsewhere, asserting again and again that distinctions may not be so distinct after all: New York may not be so separate from Paris, the epic may not be so separate from the domestic.
It seems fitting that a double collection should have a title that has a double meaning, and that Zucker should then collapse that double meaning, too. For the book deals with the concept of “pedestrian” as in both “not interesting or unusual” and as in “relating to or designed for people who are walking.” But the poetry is interesting and unusual in its deliberate usualness because Zucker takes the familiar and makes it fresh, as when in the fables section she writes:
Sometimes her heart would beat a bit faster or irregularly as if her body was fighting back, clinging to wakefulness. Mostly, though, she enjoyed the feeling of the sleeping pill taking hold, pulling her toward quietude. It was foreplay with a predictable outcome. So unusual: that kind of kept promise.
In her eyes, lots of other commonplace items and occurrences become unusual, too, even things as quotidian as salt: “The uneven crystals glittered like drugs or a geode’s innards.”
The second section has a dedication to her parents “who made me a pedestrian” and an epigraph from John Ashbery referring to “the quirky things that happen to me, and I tell you, / And you instantly know what I mean.” Her breaking of the boundary between the pedestrian and the poetic is part of what permits her quirky but basically everyday stories to have such resonance.
Echoing her previous work on motherhood and childbirth, there are lots of seeds and cultivation and eggs and sex and babies in this collection, and as in previous books, these images and patterns of thought encourage the reader to see the connection between the domestic and the global.
In the second section especially, Zucker frequently and fruitfully takes on the tone of the figure of the harried mother, as when she ends the poem “mindful” with: “don’t make dinner? haha who will? the military?” Here, the military functions as the ultimate example of a totally unnecessary created thing into which we pour inordinate national, financial, governmental and emotional resources. Zucker’s poetry is primarily urban, but it’s Romantic; she has an almost Wordsworthian conception of the world, but it’s an urban pastoral. Unlike Wordsworth, though, she’s not implying that the simple folk from the countryside have got it all figured out, but a simpler and more self-sustaining life seems to be one she longs for, even as she knows such a life is likely never going to be possible.
For example, cute stories of agriculture can have appalling endings, like in the poem called “today my son told me” which concludes:
he said crops changed everything
hominids could stay in one place
and fence animals
this was the birth of culture
people didn’t need to
gather & hunt all day
so they developed language
& the ability
to kill everything
The tone here and throughout is conversational, and the voice speaking seems committed to disguising the poem’s artfulness. The pieces are funny, but not witty-funny. Instead, they possess an almost stand-up comedian sensibility, an observational humor that disarms the audience, as in “real poem (happiness)” which in its entirety reads:
We’re all fucked up because in English
the phrase “to make someone happy”
suggests that’s possible.
The manner of the poems is appealingly sly. They seem to go out of their way not to be authoritative, although they do make assertions, as in: “real poem (no elegy)”:
You are okay. Still
okay. Stay that way.
Her humor is consistently a humor that brings its targets—death, satisfaction, marriage and so on—down to earth. An outstanding example of this is the poem “please alice notley tell me how to be old.” There are plenty of resources in our culture, clearly, that will try to tell one how to age, but apparently Prevention magazine is not cutting it and Zucker would prefer to consult Notley, a higher-quality source.
Both books contain numerous depictions of their protagonist—be she in third person or first—sitting or walking around and thinking, which might make for bad fiction, probably, but which works well in the prose poem and lineated forms. Lines like “Sometimes she sat there thinking about what it meant to be alive in one physical location instead of another, at one moment of time instead of another, to be one kind of animal rather than another” are pointed provocations to think the same way yourself, if you’d like to.
Zucker writes in the fable called “Apartment” that after reading a novel, “It is not that she is hearing voices but that her thoughts have become inflected and unfamiliar” and that’s what Zucker’s book does, too. The Pedestrians is, in most ways, a book about small things, but its effect is not a small one at all. It may even be epic.