by Jennifer Willoughby
|Milkweed Editions, 2015
Reviewed by Alison Taverna
Today, late January, the sky opened up and let the sun break onto the snow. On top of a mountain in Claysburg, Pennsylvania, I watched as skiers peeled their clothes off; their bare skin blushed against the slopes. This moment matters, and maybe only because I let it, which is something the poet Jennifer Willoughby understands and explores. She writes: “If January is two trains / traveling in opposite directions, I am not / on either train. Maybe if I go away, I’ll / embrace what it means to be here.”
Willoughby’s collection, Beautiful Zero, won the 2015 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions and the award is well deserved. Her poems are compact, independent little worlds, all equally weird and bright. It’s almost impossible to pick the lines apart, for each letter is carefully chosen. These poems are cosmos, bursting inward: “Life is / my new enemy but life / vibrates. Sometimes you / can’t take your hands off it.”
I struggle with language poetry. Frequently I feel that these poems sacrifice meaning for the sake of sound. When I’m lost in Beautiful Zero I’m never truly lost, for Willoughby interrupts her claustrophobic stanzas with lines that echo throughout the collection, like “Just because you know me doesn’t mean I am real” or “In the lemony heat, love brings love to whomever / refuses to fall to her knees,” and then, “There’s / nothing we can’t replace with something else.” Too, Willoughby plays with words in fresh ways, creating verbs as “we pass out cigarettes and horray our / way home” and “boys jellyfish our alley on their way to oblivion.” Because of these linguistic choices, I remain in whatever twisty, self-interrupting moment Willoughby brings me to.
Dark isn’t the correct adjective, but heavy seems appropriate to describe Beautiful Zero’s overall tone. The narrator is simultaneously direct and convoluted, her sentences abrupt yet her thoughts never completely over. I don’t feel comfortable in any of these poems, but sometimes we have to stop being comfortable. This collection reflects the wackiness, the hollowness and dimensions of our world, and perhaps more, of those who exist in it. Often the narrator turns to the trees, who “treat me like fire,” and “The trees don’t know if / this will ever get better.” Even nature gets caught by the strange, which is somehow both isolating and comforting.
The title, Beautiful Zero, reflects this—the idea that nothingness can be beautiful, that the lowest point of our lives or the lowest part of this world can still be worthwhile. The sun can appear in January and we can reveal our summer skins. And we can dream and “Because I dreamed, I was allowed my wounds. / Maybe we found a way to survive.”