Chains of Snow by Jakob Ziguras (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013)
Often a reader comes to a first collection of poetry with certain expectations – that of a poet finding his or her voice, a varied range of topics and levels of craft, a moderate publication record. The first things that greet you in Chains of Snow are recommendations from three eminent poets, and then a list of acknowledgements which includes significant shortlistings and prizes. All of these serve to warn you not to take this collection lightly.
It quickly becomes evident that Jakob Ziguras is not afraid of forms or rhyme, and this also intrigued me. Many first collections are primarily free verse – here we begin with a number of rhyming poems, all of which relate to ancient history in some way: Akhenaten, Plato, Orpheus, Aristotle and the like. The rhymes are clever and surprising – edge/aslant/sortilege/ignorant – and unlikely to put any reader to sleep. If that doesn’t keep you on your toes, free verse poems are dropped in here and there, so that just when you turn the page expecting another form poem, there is a free verse poem to “lighten the load”.
That is not to say that the rhyming poems are too heavy. Often they are 12 or 14 lines, and Ziguras’s language is rich and varied, offering great depth in that small space, as in ‘Reading Nelly Sachs’:
Meanings, like sleepers who have spent the night
Beneath infested sheets, are torn, too soon,
From the milky comfort of the moon
Into the iron light.
In ‘Spring’, about returning soldiers in a welcoming cavalcade, the stanzas are three lines (it’s a terza rima) and, again, the imagery is rich:
… tireless wheels crush beauty’s gaudy trash.
They went believing in the hollowed pap
Fed them by old men hoarding tarnished cash.
Throughout the whole collection, many images captured my imagination, standing out from the poems like beams of light: a honeyed afternoon, rags of laughter, trees are but cracks appearing in the blue eggshell ceramic. I imagine other readers would find their own favourites.
Perhaps I’m an impatient reader these days though – the much longer rhyming poems sometimes lost me, as if their subject slowly became smothered by the layers of words. Is it harder to write a long poem these days and keep it coherent and moving forward for an average reader? I’d hate to think Ziguras was writing only for academics! There is too much to savour here.
I admit I found that the free verse poems were more pleasurable to read, for several reasons. One was that it seemed the imagery became freer, the often shorter lines carrying less but allowing more reflection and thought. Another was that the poet was clearly thinking very carefully about his line breaks, and using them to advantage. In ‘The Bees Are Leaving’, it begins:
The bees are leaving, abandoning their hives,
the wax still warm, the cells impeccable.
The word ‘impeccable’ is impeccably placed. I could read that stanza several times and still be caught by that word.
The four poems in ‘Varanasi Cycle’ work well together, a mix of free verse and rhyme with the rhyme, in Ziguras’s way, rarely falling into the predictable. All the sensory details bring the setting and events alive, as in ‘Poem IV, Night’:
Every night, as if raging against the gods,
the temple drums drive the red-faced monkeys
crazy, screeching over the rusted rooftops.
It’s inevitable that when poems are mentioned as winning or being shortlisted for competitions, you can’t help examining them more intensely. What did the judges see in this, you wonder, to make it a worthy winner? Was it just their length? Do you have to write long poems these days to be noticed? While ‘Varanasi Cycle’ and ‘Abendland’ were richly rewarding, I did think ‘The Last Man in Pompeii’ became a little too heavy-going. That may simply reflect my reading preferences.
Overall, Chains of Snow is a sterling first collection that rewards many re-readings.
– Sherryl Clark
Sherryl Clark was the supervising editor of Poetrix magazine for 20 years. She teaches poetry at Victoria University TAFE, and completed her Master of Fine Arts at Hamline University in Minneapolis/St Paul in 2013, where her critical thesis was on verse novels. She writes verse novels for young readers, and her most recent title is Runaways (Penguin, 2013). She is currently undertaking a PhD at Victoria University.
Chains of Snow is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/jakob-ziguras/
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