Petals of Zero Petals of One by Andrew Zawacki
Talisman House 2009
Review by Angela Veronica Wong
but sometimes another word won’t do when a word is the one you want
you think Pierrot Georgia
like pirouette Georgia
dunno if the words are related
I know almost nothing of language Georgia
(from Andrew Zawacki’s “Georgia.”)
Language reflects this desire [to make the definition coincide with the defined]. And it is from within this language that we must attempt an ‘opening.’
(Spivak, Translator’s Preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology)
I found myself thinking of the Spivak quote while reading Andrew Zawacki’s Petals of Zero Petals of One, which seemed in many ways to be reaching to this opening. Consisting of three long poems, the collection opens with the explosive “Georgia.” Reading “Georgia” feels like what I imagine willing iron filings feel when manipulated by magnets: drawn in many different directions.
The title of the collection borrows from the following lines in “Georgia:”
petals of 0 petals of 1
rips a hole of a fractal dimension
Fittingly, Zawacki’s work in Petals of Zero Petals of One reminds of those images of fractals, beautiful and unique shapes and could arguably be the poetic version of this infinitely complex structure found both in nature and created by mathematics.
The language present in Zawacki’s work is in the way of a Liszt etude, somewhat intimidating in its obvious virtuosity and a landscape of experiences. While the reader is left with the impression that each word can lead to many possibilities that aren’t on the page, the deliberate craft of language choice is clear. The lines in “Georgia” are indeed “bullets into the dark.” There is a fantastic amount of concentrated power channeled through enviously effortless (or at least seemingly effortless, which is fairly envious) language that tugs at the reader’s center, but also a certain amount of obscurity and obscuring which only condenses the power of the language play and usage.
Zawacki exerts control through spacing and line breaks, repetition and building a spun-sugar web of both hidden and more obvious allusions and associations. A “tungsten Georgia” is followed shortly by “I walk wolfstep into the shadow Georgia,” and half-a-page later, “it’s chien et loup Georgia.” Brought into this English language association of “wolf” because of the word ‘loup,’ this French idiom leads the reader back Zawacki’s continuing exploration of language and the distances that exists within. The inexactitude of language, let alone translation, let alone communication.
This sort of pinballing between words and toying with multiple meanings and fracturing is consistent and masterful. But even at the times it seems Zawacki plays a game of hide-and-seek with the reader, it seems less important that the reader accesses and uncovers each hidden gem than the knowledge that this structure exists, so that, like language itself, each reading of the piece a little different than the next.
Throughout the three poems, Zawacki explores boundaries and spaces, both actual and figurative, and weaves in scientific and technical language. In “Georgia,” much of the technical language he integrates is mathematical and geological: the presence of stones and elements grounds the poem while the addition of theorems and allusions to binary code (as with the title) seem to float it a space between theoretical and actuality.
In the second section, entitled “Arrow’s Shadow,” Zawacki again uses form to change the readers absorption of the text. The entirety of the poem is flushed right, a surprisingly discomforting experience to eyes trained for left-aligned reading. Aligned right, the lines seem to crowd the page, eliciting a sort of stubbornly aggressive, disjunctive feeling, which is reinforced by his line breaks, often splitting words into smaller words, alternating his use of hyphens—at times at the end of the first line, at others at the beginning of the second:
in a mode of wrapped phen-
hearing your demo heart’s r
is perhaps the most extreme example. In the hands of a less skilled poet, perhaps this sort of Legos-wordplay would quickly become gimmicky, but Zawacki carefully selects his breaking-apart so that his cleverness with language does not overstep the solemnity in questioning language. These word fissions, to use a scientific word that Zawacki uses, play tricks on the reader’s eyes, but also remind us how words have worlds unto themselves. Perhaps the most brilliant passage to effect occurs when Zawacki shows how tenuous language can be, how words are just a collection of letters put in a particular order and (re)moving even just one letter can create an entirely different experience:
between the horizon
chrysalis where a location meets locution
(the sound check, verb and reverb, the voiceover
the river is a sibilant, sibyl-
tildes where the tide belays
a tear in the terra
In “Arrow’s Shadow,” Zawacki’s language feels more technical, or contains more technohybrids, such as “modemsong and binaural breath,”and “ciph-/ered graf-/fiti.” He balances this with musical language:
polar gust in contrap-
punto at -40°
a spun glass sonatina
le and sci-
ntilla, viola da bracci-
o and voice
and “dialect forged of phos/-phor/cadenza.” This is appropriate, considering the title and the continuing focus on “arrow” in the poem, a word that has, from a bow’s arrow to computer’s arrow, seen its signification (in the sense of sign/signifier) evolve radically, from nature to technology, but its significance in our lives has stayed consistently relevant. After all, an arrow, in the olden days, was a source of livelihood and protection. And now, in our computer-driven world, it is a constant in both work and home and play. And in the life of someone who writes words, it is nearly inescapable. And not to diminish the significance of the second word of the title, “shadow.” In the dictionary, where is an impressive number of definitions listed under “shadow,” which make it a fascinating word alone, but in possession of “arrow,” renders the arrow both physical (the physical object of the arrow casting a shadow) and absent (the pl/space where the arrow was). It is this movement of language, words and their meanings, how they change, and exploring the difference between language, words, and meanings that carries throughout “Arrow’s Shadow,” indeed throughout the entire collection.
The third part of “Petals of One Petals of Zero,” entitled “Storm, Lustral,” is the shortest and most intimate of the three poems. In “Storm, Lustral,” Zawacki’s language achieves a lyricism that is heartbreaking in its simplicity:
give & forgive us
our fjords of crashing
through thaws of ourselves
analect & veer from an arsenic
sky like a child who guards
a sand castle against
tapping a wrinkle
of salt water
telling the ocean to stop
“Storm, Lustral” is similar to the first two poems in its placement between two seemingly opposing forces—nature and human—but seems the poem most vulnerable in its uncertainty and in search of a resolution like the third movement of a sonata, and wanting, as the title seems to indicate, this movement from a “storm” into “lustral,” some sort of absolution and coming together. There is an integrated relationship between powerful nature (“fjords of crashing,” “book of rain will squall to smear/ the first,” “currents that waver/ unbended untorn”) and a humanity—the child and his sand castle, the statement that
I can start
again can start again
: the moon is awaiting a
makeover sun plays
satisfied with itself
Believe the weather will
strain its back for
someone no longer & never
—and maybe, however flawed, human hopefulness is hopeful for a reason.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Translator’s Preface. Of Grammatology. By Jacques Derrida. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1967. xx.
 One of the many words I will openly admit having to look up, tungsten is a hard, brittle, corrosion resistant gray-to-white metal also known as ‘wolfram.’