An Avalanche on the Verge of the Tongue: A Review of Unsun: f/11

In Unsun: f/11, his intrepid, trailblazing fifth volume of poetry, American poet Andrew Zawacki lends his inimitable poetic voice to the task of welding together the various pressing possibilities and dangers of our contemporary “global pastoral.” Gone are the days of the uncharted, the carrier pigeon, the isolated, the quiet life. Here is the contemporary age: a panopticon of global surveillance, digital interference, and never-ending transnational communication that has become an inescapable part of our daily lives. How do we make sense of those lives? How does one raise a child? How does one process and portray the world around us faithfully—a world radically changed but still haunted by the eerie, lingering remnants of the old world? And how do we fight against, or even identify, the legions of unseen threats skulking at our doorsteps? These are the questions Zawacki sets out to answer in Unsun, a collection as daring as it is deft. Zawacki presents our global landscape changing into new, barely recognizable forms; the lyric, which we use to understand that unfolding, metastasizing foliage, must follow suit.

Poems like “Snowflak” try desperately to communicate the incommunicable in a kind of post-speech combination of synaptic and associative triggers, as in the first few lines: 

Climbing in the fall line, an avalan 

-che on the verge of the tongue, a
splurge might trigger a surge of
further spending, pending


And as much as the first few quoted lines might prompt one to think of Gertrude Stein at her most playful in Tender Buttons, the poem’s speaker truly is trying to paint an impression of a mental state in the following lines:

                    alyssum white – my
brain a splash of
Keshi pearls a

shot of Bulleit,
          by applying the platform to

other verticals

Despite its moments of fun or pun or sonic play, the concerns of Unsun really are quite serious: the falling avalanche of language at the beginning of “Snowflak” alludes to the woes of capitalism, and one associates the “shot of Bulleit” whiskey with the shot of a bullet to the brain. 21st-century violence rears its ugly head often in the collection, especially in the poems experimental sonnets or in poems like “Music for Attack Helicopter” or “Optic Audio.” 

Although a good deal of the poems in Unsun grasp for the ineffable—and often succeed at catching glimmers of insight and identifying queries we hadn’t even thought to ask yet, as in “Eidolons/ of imperial gravity” or “Godthrough:/ a star with a word tied around/ it”—other poems are grounded in a real place, or at least the ghost of a place. One of my favorite of these is “Outside a Ruined Casino,” which begins: “The sky is not falling it’s/ failing,” followed by language signifying nature’s eventual, terrifying collapse. Unsun appears equally concerned for the anthropocene and our collective psyches, but it isn’t afraid to find startling moments of beauty or vulnerability in our crumbling ecosystem. Of the titular casino in “Outside a Ruined Casino,” the poem’s speaker describes a door that’s come off its hinge as “A prettiness. To break my face against. Or the government’s.” The poem continues, returning to the sky: “The sky is flailing – a hoax, a/ helix, its daylight/ an algorithm,” pointing to the thin line between the interconnected frailties of our failing economic and environmental systems; here, for Zawacki, even the stability of the sky and its ecological implications are misleading, on the edge of annihilation, not unlike the ruined casino itself. Fittingly, the poem ends with “- and every time the sunshine dims/ the system is// infrathin.” 

Longer poems like “Gratophoph,” “Roche Limit,” and “The Forms Frozen in Familiar Remoteness” give Unsun the time it needs to develop its stunning and inimitable voice. “Gratophoph” starts with the tercet, “This is not a waiting room/ for souls. It is modern,/ totally unwindowed,” working to teach the reader how this difficult yet infinitely rewarding text might be read. Later, in “Gratophoph” moments of real intimacy emerges as the speaker utters:

                    I have got a lot
more songs in my mouth:


                              Is there much enough snow?
                              Is that supposed to be lakes

These longer poems grant access to a real sense of interiority that might be lost in the more metaphysical moments of Unsun, but they also help to establish the laws of this unfamiliar place in the text. Although the words in Unsun might not seem human at times, they come from a place of great humanity, a place of great concern for the environment, for our societies, and for the speaker’s own daughter; most of the collection’s sonnets are inspired by or dedicated to her.

This series of daughter-sonnets vary wildly in tone. While some of the sonnets don’t mention the daughter at all, her spirit still lingers, as the threats of environmental eradication and systemic failure loom constantly on the horizon of Unsun. The first of Zawacki’s “Sonnensonnets” (with “The daughter is not named,” a quote by Jacques Derrida, as an epigraph) is the lovely “Limit Sonnet,” which reads:

Daughter and laughter – a letter
A part
Of terra firma and infirm

As a poppy reddens
In porch light
In frost
Whithersoever it’s wired

Daughter is an 
Edge, edge
A verb – 

I knew you
Were you before
You knew

There’s something about the tone of the poem that makes me love it so; even with the speaker’s undeniable adoration for the daughter, the poem never lets itself fall into the saccharine. In this moment of adoration, we see the speaker’s mind pairing the closeness of “daughter” and “laughter” with the sonic similarity of “terra firm” (safety, dry land, stability) and “infirm” (frail, old, needing to be cared for). Near the volta of the sonnet, we’re reminded of the daughter as an edge—something to be known and yet infinitely unknown, as the rest of the world in Zawacki’s Unsun seems to be. 

Other daughter-sonnets like “Surface-to-Surface Sonnet” offer the daughter more practical advice, as in the first three lines: “Daughter you need a real jetlag plan/ For the wee hours/ When sleeping it off isn’t working,” which sounds like awfully adult advice, as if the parent in this poem is preparing the daughter for an unknowable future. 

There’s more here, of course, more than I could ever hope to cover in a single review, from the pairs of photographs and poems (all shot at f/11 aperture, which gives the collection its subtitle) in “Waterfall Plot,” dedicated to Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei, to the presence of continental philosophers Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, to the blending of French dialogue between the seams of poems. But that abundance of material, of thought, and of possibility and impossibility is what I find so compelling about Unsun: f/11; it is a book I will return to, and it’s a book I’ll return to again, and even then, when I’ve returned for the third and the fourth time and onward, I’m confident I’ll find some new gem, some connection that I hadn’t made before, some glimpse into an interiority that I hadn’t prepared for yet. And, truly, that’s what I look for in a book of poems: the promise that if I keep delving, I’ll keep finding something new.

Eric Stiefel lives in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet.  He teaches at Ohio University, where he is also pursuing a PhD in English with a concentration in poetry.  His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Apple Valley Review, The Maine Review, Nightjar Review, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.