By Don Thompson
This is dark stuff. The opening poem of Joseph Zaccardi’s new collection, The Weight of Bodily Touches, seems to be offered as a warning so that the tender-hearted might proceed no farther. In “To Feast on the Flesh of Decay”, a farmer’s wife exhumes the bones of a miscarried baby to “suckle my loss” and then “eats the grave dust under her own nails”. Some readers of this review will no doubt stop right here.
But I wonder about the source of such darkness. Usually it’s a kind of posturing that intends to shock for its own sake—a variety of grand guignol. But in these poems, it’s a genuine and almost compulsive response to the—well, horror that surrounds us. Zaccardi looks closely at things most of us studiously ignore or see as social issues that provide an opportunity to do good from a distance. In these poems we witness human consciousness barely holding itself together in the face of suffering that just is. No one to blame. Not much to be done.
“The Sound the Tree Makes” turns out to be a scream and the answer to Bishop Berkeley’s question that even if no human hears it, the other trees do. And this is only a tree—perhaps ridiculous if Zaccardi hadn’t given us such a vivid description of the tortures inflicted on logs in a lumber mill. When he focuses on human suffering in “ICU”, we’re forced to see the awfulness of hospitals that we try to pretend isn’t there among the pastels and smooth jazz: “…a gurney casting chirps down a corridor…while IVs beep and air whistles from tap holes” and “a defibrillator delivers doses of electric current to undo a flatliner”.
In all this, Zaccardi exhibits a craftsman’s skill with the unpunctuated, run-on prose poem. We are carried long by the ebb and flow of rhythms rather than bogged down in the usual unreadable clot. This gives the poems tension—an odd exhilaration that runs counter to their grim subject matter. And he does make an effort to reach some sort of quietness if not peace of mind in the final section, which shifts tone radically to pay homage to classical Chinese poetry. But it’s too little too late to offset the preceding darkness.
And yet, like the spiders he writes about in “Circle and Alchemy”, his work is both “beautiful and hair-raising”. Although their webs and our lives are fragile and tear apart easily, we “rebuild because there is so much left.”
You can find the book here: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/the-weight-of-bodily-touches
Don Thompson has been writing about the San Joaquin Valley for over fifty years, including a dozen or so books and chapbooks. For more info and links to publishers, visit his website at www.don-e-thompson.com.