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On The Winner of the 2017 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry

by Katie Pryor

When I started Susan Gubernat’s The Zoo at Night, I felt naïve. I felt young. Facts about American history, Irish legends, and words I did not know gathered in the drain of my mind and I embraced it. I embraced it because sometimes Twitter exhausts me, sometimes the weight of my desire for youthfulness disgusts me. The truths of Gubernat’s collection are blunt and revealed slow. They take time. They have taken time.

Mary Ruefle, commenting on our obsession with talking about poems instead of reading them, says that no poet can teach us anything until they’re dead. I would argue, perhaps, that no poet teaches us anything until they are older, until some time has passed. I don’t mean to undermine the young; I am twenty-nine years old. What I mean to say is that I needed Gubernat’s longer view, I needed her to confound me, to further me along past the current limits of my senses.  

The sounds Gubernat makes in this book do not scream. They come from the lower register. They haunt. They are formally astute. The second section called ‘Analog House: A Cabinet of Curiosities’ is made up of 19 sonnets—a collection of objects: the washboard, a piano bench, a meat grinder, over which I stumbled because it is night time at this zoo and most of the lights are off. This invitation to stumble and wander is the book’s power. It proves there is no other way through memory. Take, for instance, “Spirit Level,” one of the sonnets, assumingly about a father’s death. Here is the whole poem:

                                    Spirit Level

What could we do but measure ourselves
and be found wanting? The straight shall be made
crooked. But I was a cock-eyed optimist
for a time, convinced the air bubble would hit
the exact spot: equanimity. Souls
can do no better. You only needed
tools, and we had them. Voices and minds, willing.
Place it down on the cold ground, in the midst
of a city crowd, a slick corridor
of power. And it will list and founder. Try
again: it will disappear. Off the chart.
He had a roomful of tools that couldn’t
save him in the end. My father rode it
like a dolphin and drowned. Mind over matter.

What is the it in this poem? The air bubbles of a level? It evades me and grips my shoulder gently. We cannot will what we love to stay here forever. Our minds do not conquer matter. Gubernat grew up in a working class Catholic family; she is also an opera librettist, which means she writes operas.[1] At times, the journey through this book, this memory, feels baroque—we’re walking around a cathedral with only a flashlight and the permission to touch everything. Here, we’re in the father’s room full of tools, just another corridor to the spirit level.

Gubernat is funny; we’re given dark humor in this church, after of course we’ve survived our mothers. In a poem about JFK’s assassination and affair with Marilyn Monroe, she ends with, “Go on, honey, blow.” But let’s see the whole thing, because she successfully weaves together two metaphors, a device that often makes a poem feel crowded:

                                    I Was in Gym Class When Cronkite said They’d Shot Him

                                   Last night the party boat blazed in Reynold’s
                                   Channel, like the birthday cake they spent days
                                   decorating for JFK, and then,
                                   when the waiters carried it out on a huge tray,
                                   wobbling between them, all you could think is
                                   oh god, they’ll drop it—the way you feared
                                   Marilyn’s dress would split open at those straining
                                   seams he must have run his finger down. “Well,” as
                                   students say when they take up a topic
                                   reluctantly on the page, they’re both reruns
                                   anyway: The drawbridge cranks open
                                   every night for the gamblers’ homecoming,
                                   win or lose. The ship glides through, still lit
                                   up. All a little silly really, faux naïve in its
                                   moue of girlish expectation. Go on, honey, blow.

This poem gets at how history does and does not penetrate us depending on where we are at the time of a significant event, pun intended. It gets at the guise of propriety, our ghoulish desire all caged up in a cake and a dress, excited about the idea of devastation. We hear her biting humor again in “Day Lilies,”

                                                                                                But in a vase
                                   the next day they seize up like insects
                                   the spider has sucked dry.

                                   What am I doing here but arranging for death?

Gubernat’s sounds—the formal qualities and tone of this book—communicate that the aches one feels in youth, though transformed, remain aches. We do not want to accept this about life. Thank God Gubernat has. Thank God she wrote the poem “Our Road,” which chronicles one person taking their hands off the steering wheel with a beloved in the car: “…when you take your hands off / the wheel, with me beside you, // you take me down too, and I’m not yet done / with this imperfect life.  


[1] See her major work, Korczak’s Orphans, written in collaboration with composer Adam Silverman. 

Katie E. Pryor is originally from Atlanta, GA and holds an MFA in Poetry from Bennington College; she received her BA in Spanish. Her work has appeared in The Rio Review and Prairie Schooner and is forthcoming in Five Points (as the recipient of the James Dickey Prize for Poetry) and Southern Indiana Review. She was recently recognized with a 2017 Fall Fellowship at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her academic interests include 20th century American poetry, translation, borders, and gender.