MAN VS. SKY By Corey Zeller

Man vs. Sky
Corey Zeller
YesYes Books, 2013
80 pp. $16.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Shelley Wong

Corey Zeller’s debut collection Man vs. Sky is an extraordinary elegy and a full-blooded marvel. Written in the voice of Jeremy Quezada, a close friend who committed suicide, the book invites us into a world of simultaneous existence and a burning heart. In the opening poem, the speaker calls out to the reader—swaggering (“I am going to show you up with congas and weird smiles”) and insistent (“I am going to make you perform a great act of sorrow, over and over, after me”). Throughout the book, the poems take on added dimension as they shift in grammatical tense and mood. The effect is surprisingly joyful and mesmerizing. As the reader, we are not apart from the dead; we are in its thrall.

Instead of meditating on his loss through the filter and remove of the authorial speaker, Zeller takes on his friend’s voice and creates an afterlife where we can follow as an intimate. Thus, the emphasis is not on Zeller’s grief, but on rendering a vision of his friend through language. Yet we come to know Zeller through this collection as a poet of tremendous empathy, passion, wit, imagination, and control. His images manifest and evaporate with shattering effect, and when combined with emotional candor, the poems hurtle with accumulated power and weight.

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(COVER ART BY ALBAN FISCHER)

We enter different silences as we travel with the speaker to people and presences both familiar and unfamiliar. But what is familiar and ordinary quickly becomes strange, destabilized, questioned, and subject to erasure. Even time collapses and facets so that there is a simultaneous sense of experiencing the absence of presence as a presence (“Black matter is my new job” and “The neighbors shout and call the cops for all the noise not there”). The afterlife is both an inversion and a distortion. The latter is stunningly realized in “The piano under the water looks like a shark” where the speaker re-identifies an astonishing chain of images:

. . .The thud you feel walking, talking, is a wire missing to a piano key. I pound it with my finger, hear a note no one else believes in, one only those without throats can sing. I pound it feeling my chest open. My chest a bathtub filled with toucans, uncontrollable jets of green-blue blood. This is to say: the piano under the water looks like a piano but is really a casket.

The transformation of the ordinary to the alarming is dazzling and emotionally layered. As Zeller delves into this liminal state, his poetry bursts with emotional energy and conversational zing. We come to know the speaker’s personality as his tone shifts from astringency to regret to playful humor via slang (“Don’t get it twisted, Dante baby,” a call-out to the master of the afterlife poem). We move through many states of ephemerality as scenes come together and dissolve (“Everything is unnamed, most of all me”).

Zeller has created a book about loss that beats with admissions, questions, accusations, and refusals while also taking on the position of an omniscient outsider. We move from the past (“Nothing was there to watch me. The skin peeled off easier than you’d imagine.”) to the present (“Your child, too, cannot sleep”), swerving perilously between these intimate moments without context. The fragmented narrative is well-suited for the prose poem form, which works to showcase Zeller’s sharp writing and restrain its delivery. Without the line break, we lose enjambment’s disruption, white space, and dramatic pause. Due to Zeller’s careful hand, the prose poem urges us onward and we say yes: we want to follow the poem’s leaps and electric imagery and do so through the rhythm of the sentence. But we retain the poem’s relationship to white space as a passage toward an empty field, an emptiness which has become a charged silence. As we reel from each poem’s moment, we also confront the distances between the speaker and the reader, the speaker and the addressee, and the poet and his friend. Close to the end of the collection, the speaker addresses the poet and others who mourn his death and one poem ends: “My corpse has been floating. And you, my friends, have been standing above it only to hold it down.” Thus, the poems shifts inward to the poet interrogating himself by complicating the notion of what an elegy does to the person it memorializes.

How can one write about someone who has died and who has died too young? How does one write about a suicide? Zeller’s collection gives us no easy answers and no boring answers. This visionary book will shake you. Zeller is a tremendous young talent and Man vs. Sky is a richly realized collection that will reverberate in the mind and the heart long after one has closed its pages.

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