Selfless: a preview
To call Zoe Dzunko’s poems wild is a temptation I have fallen for so many times and it would not be inaccurate to describe them as such. But these words and their bevy of applications occasionally miss the point, misrepresenting a complex and cerebral journey as a feral wilderness, removing agency (re our heroine) from the epic, and presuming an analog between the natural and the inscrutable darkness of the troubled mind. Nothing wrong with that, except that in being captivated by the frenzied lyric, one might not hear the knotted thread of her rhetoric and academic insistence. It is true that you experience these poems from your guts outward and it is true that you experience a deliciously rare sublime rush while reading, but it is also true that Zoe writes hard, with unequivocal precision and might. She is smart as hell, and the medium of the poem only demonstrates one small surface on which she capitulates and recapitulates her intellectual grievances. Insofar as these poems also address trauma, hunger, consumption, and a quasi-religious disbelief, Selfless is a chapbook of remarkable trouble. It is with the utmost pleasure that we present a small preview of Zoe Dzunko’s Selfless by publishing one of her most harrowing emblematic poems, “Pudendum.” In addition, Zoe and I had a great conversation about her chapbook, which follows the featured poem. Also included in this blog post is a chapbook trailer conceived of and edited by Emily Raw, a transpacific collaboration between Emily and Zoe (Zoe lives in Australia; Emily, Brooklyn). If, upon experiencing this trailer, the hairs stand straight up on your neck and you feel you have become a bereft witness of the private life lived, that’s a completely normal sensation. Emily, n.b., is also the cover designer of this gorgeous book. I hope you have the opportunity to pick up Zoe’s chapbook before they disappear. This is a poet of extreme talents. Remember her name.
—Natalie Eilbert, publisher of TAR Chapbook Series/The Atlas Review
Yes, I have crawled. Splayed the bed,
been fucked or flushed to red-raw
by the domestic. I’ve had my finest ideas turning
dishes in the sink. I dry them off.
Take my sleep on silk to stave the sagging. I did
I do because of guilt — a shame I can never sever,
a limb I cannot cut from limbs
of which it ballasts: one for my mother,
another for my daughter, already blushing
at the thought of her own life. Did I gape,
breathe in time with the bleeding? Did I tear
with the tear when I birthed her,
this notion of mine, or was it yours all along?
i.e. stay very hungry, i.e. remain on the brink
crumbling with starvation. I have housed
and wifed and tried to grasp within the loop.
You do not wish to hear the truth,
the ways it might ruin for you the taste of meat.
We have not always been willing. By we:
your girls. By you: the world. I did not elect you
president, I did not, although I did invite you
to the party of my body. You looked at me,
you saw a hole. A void from which you might be
filled, unfledged, or unfleshed — a riviera
of rich potential. You could announce yourself,
having been mine and from being mine
found yourself. The way you like your body
touched, the way you like your coffee creamed.
The way you need to be assured — reassured.
I is the gap I bridge bodily between us;
a vessel for your emptiness. For your civilisations
I wear atop my skin the depilatory creme,
tasked to unravel the carrion odor from the bloom
of freshly bared flesh: every mother of a son,
every woman who loved one, who felt insides dented
by tremoring tissue. My fantasy, to no longer exist
under these terms, you can give it to me: only you
can ease yourself above, fall atop to blank me
with neutral tones. An eye closed against the nape
of your neck, fifty pale lashes, all that is left.
Natalie Eilbert: Selfless feels like a book that has been processing in your mind for a very long time. The impression I’ve always gotten is that these have been inside you like primordial goo and you’ve only just begun exposing these poems to harsh, surface elements. Could you tell me the journey of these poems? When did the project coalesce?
Zoe Dzunko: As far as the historicity of Selfless goes, primordial seems an appropriate descriptor because, like you’ve mentioned, there is an atmosphere of exhumation clouding the whole work. I say atmosphere because I perceive of it less as a considered action of digging and more to do with the sensorial elements I attach to the interring/unearthing of self, as it occurs within personal history. Many of the poems are found at the brink of self—certainly they were composed from this psychological space—and I likewise imagine the external mechanics of writing them as akin to being alone in some dense night, the hole having been dug, and confronting the moment of in/decision before the dirt is wiped finally away. For this reason, I place the book temporally, in the momentary pre-present-post which acknowledges the body as being episodic rather than a linear sequence.
I think of the book as quintessentially autobiographical—it is very inward looking, of course—but rather than a reflective account of history it broaches the past as a process of rediscovery. Often these discoveries are forced or reluctantly made, and this might contribute to the primeval undertones in Selfless, in that it feels like a work hauled from deep recesses, is a work extracted from the abyss. Ultimately, the poems span the entirety of my human history to date, and there are some I consider as being distinctly pre-body, speaking from a germinal space.
The journey of writing them feels inextricable from history and for this reason a part of me wants to say that they have been composing themselves for decades. Clearly that isn’t the truth. The oldest poem in the manuscript is the first, “The Impossible III,” which was written early 2014, and about 50% of the remaining poems were composed in the period of a year following it. The other half, which comprises the poems we added to the book, was written this year and is a more deliberate dredging of the basin of memory, as framed by the exigencies of the present. To say the project coalesced would be to suggest it feels complete, and we both know that is something I struggled with. Because it is so bodily, Selfless resisted containment and I found it difficult to close the lid on its world. It’s a world I’m still living, of course, but the book is full of selves splintered and irreconcilable, so I think it is almost defined by a lack of cohesion; that is the shape it took and the one it was most destined to embody.
NE: The other day while writing to a magazine about the possibility of reviewing your work, I casually described Selfless as “stoked with the femme fires of redemption.” (Pretty sure I convinced them, btw.) I think “redemption” is an accurate term for your poetry as you simultaneously demand and revoke apology (read: tear the mother fucking walls of the patriarchy down) for the powers that be. One can grasp right away what the themes are of Selfless, but how would you name them and what they’re up to here?
ZD: Ha, I like that phrase. To my mind, the more interesting aspect of redemption occurs after the fact, in the forfeiting of purpose. The passage of vindication necessitates a certain vulnerability, but it also delivers meaning and determination. Sometimes this provides sustenance enough to live on, and I think many of the poems in Selfless draw breath from that resource in their presumption that justice will provide resolution. On the other hand, what does it mean to demand accountability from the redeemer and how does that exchange reinstitute their power? This dynamic is present in my mind and one, I think, the poems tackle in their simultaneous tearing down/rebuilding of those institutional walls. There is a lot of outrage in the book, but there is just as much conflicted complicity. The overarching sentiment of the poems might be contained in the notion: I’m playing by your rules/ why am I playing by your rules? So while the theme of redemption is undeniable, it is fraught with self-censure and disquietude, i.e. I wrapped this ribbon around my nature and I bent myself backwards; I did these things to assert my value and to expedite my liberation and now I am liberated, but I am still decorated with these artefacts you pressed into my palm.
I’m interested in the internalisation of sentiment, that’s a major theme. Which preferences occur intrinsically, which are externally mandated, and which are insidiously assimilated into my character? I think this is maybe the depersonalised self of Selfless, one of many tiny gaps that are illuminated by the rays of external lights. I think the last poem, “Excision” takes up this issue most explicitly when it states ‘I never wanted any of this you never asked me.’ The I is the me, but the you denotes an amalgam of external you and internal I—there are many I’s, their values and desires are vastly different, the self is not a cohesive entity. This is more interesting to me than ideological cohesion, it feels closer to how I experience my own living.
NE: I’ve wanted to ask you a question about hunger, about indulging a body that is noted in this book as “the flesh of your wounded nature” (from “Solecism”) and a “nugatory creation myth of sagging edges” (from “Excision”). To talk about these poems is to talk firmly about the body, the unfairness in having one at all. And so hunger feels like a supreme politic, a sensation as much as a need for nourishment that adds shape and dimension to its court. What is hunger doing in this book? What is starvation doing? What about food in general?
ZD: Hunger, as it occurs in Selfless and in the world at large, is extraordinarily political. It is the ultimate politic because it is bound to so much catastrophe: environmental, economical, social and imperial reprobation. I will focus upon the Selfless universe, though, because my feelings go for miles. The first thing that occurs to me is the question of what it means to be hungry in the western world, and which dimensions of that state are tempered by the relative certitude of satiety. Food is political, yes, but it exists here where in other places it does not. As such, that inevitability potentiates other hunger states—be they emotional, spiritual, philosophical, or elected—and conceptually it recognises a wandering that occurs when base needs are removed from the equation. There is a beautiful simplicity to actual hunger, the way it usurps ancillary needs, and while this is privileged thinking it really derives from an exhaustion in the face of frenetic desire.
In Selfless, I think hunger occurs in a couple of distinct ways. One, the idea of elected hunger is often power seeking and effectuates control, both political and personal, wherein the choice to remain as such impacts the way the body is felt, lived, and seen. There is also an attempt to unpack how this preference might reflect external systems because it stems from a lack of agency, and so the assertion of power over our own selves is both a redressing and a reinvigoration of the larger dynamics which impose so much in the way of violence and expectation. For this reason, the body in Selfless is more a system of meanings than anything else, and its big question is what it means to be drawn to fast, or to experience the body in such a way that this choice becomes apparent or appealing. Alternatively, what does it mean to occupy a body that has never once considered this decision, and therefore what does this infer about the involuntary ingestion of larger social systems that demand and necessitate hunger? These are all questions that interest me, and they get a lot of airplay in Selfless.
I think the biggest hunger-related theme, though, stems from the way interoception re-bodies (this is not a word but I’m using it) us. Selfless, being acutely disorientated, as it is, uses hunger as a provocation that forces an immediate and often inconvenient confrontation with form. In this way, hunger is an alarm that restates corporeality, shifting the focus from mind to body, and in the poems it occurs as a refrain that breaches periods of disembodiment with its pull back to vital instincts. Of course there are dysmorphic aspects to this fixation, too; hunger and the female body are bound in a treacherous binary, so it is often an unpleasant and simultaneously agreeable burn when it arises.
NE: Many of the titles in Selfless are latinate and connote a religious root (“Absolution,” “Apostate,” “Boterismo,” “Solecism,” “Indolic,” “Pudendum,” “Excision”). They certainly set a grand tone and the product itself is grand as hell. I’m curious about your manner of engagement with these terms and what exploring their dimensions has done for the work within the poem and the work at large?
ZD: Because the poems in Selfless are less interested in the body, period, and more curious about its place in a sequence of events, or the way it makes and is made of meaning, there is a strong pull towards progenitorial language. The patency of institutionalised misogyny can often be found therein, and it feels possible to convey the scope of specifically female-inherited burdens by playing with semantic applications in this way. When we were discussing the etymon of Pudendum, for example, we were both horrified but also kind of unsurprised. It’s like an ugly heart that gets wrapped in layers of removal. So, for that reason, etymology feels like a propitious way to undertake this tangling and untangling of the body in the poems—its layers, its nearness and its distance from incipient associations.
The religious derivation is much more explicit. “Apostate,” “Excision,” “Solecism,” in particular, are part of a larger sequence which recollects a particularly wayward excursion into a fundamentalist Christian sect during my adolescence. I was raised staunchly atheistic, so this experience was confusing for everyone involved, most of all myself, and layered with isolation upon isolation. After I re-renounced, I disregarded and moved on, became a teenager again, behaved badly etcetera, and didn’t acknowledge the impact of its experience: I completely excised this moment and this version of myself from my cognitive landscape. It wasn’t until recently, when a friend asked why I hadn’t written about it, that I became aware of my desire to do so. I think the place of these poems in Selfless is important, because my brief flirtation with organised religion introduced me to my first feelings of female shame, during a period of serious teenage transition. That shame occurs in a sequence, where non-male flesh is figura for subversion and connected to the licentiousness of the secular world, while being unreservedly open to internal critique and comment. This was my experience, anyhow. One day I was a child and the next I felt ashamed to pray for fear of bending over.
NE: Talk about the I here. You say in “Pudendum” that “I is the gap I bridge bodily between us.” Such lines call us back to the title of the chapbook. Mostly the I is addressed in first person, but as above, it occasionally revs a more abstracted engine. What does the self want? What does it want to remove beyond itself?
ZD: I think I may have answered this in an earlier question, but I imagine Selfless as introspective and reaffirming of a lyric I, while also a clear of evisceration of the I as it occurs within and beyond the frame of the work. I called it an autobiography before but it might be more accurate to consider it a self-authored prosopography, for the ways it connects and imposes distance between self/I/archetype. I want to say that Selfless is like an embodied MSR test I fail again and again, but really it is about an apperception which promotes discomfort. There is a lot of discomfort for me, because I have to confront myself from the outside.
NE: Bonus question: Who were your main poetry influences in the writing of this chapbook?
ZD: The first half, I was very involved in Lucia Perillo’s Inseminating the Elephant, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins, and The Helen’s of Troy, NY, a Bernadette Mayer chapbook I’d recently stumbled across. Later, I was almost exclusively reading Alice Notley’s Culture of One, the collection Selfless’s epigraph was lifted from, and which was crucial for the ways it emboldened me to present such an isolated, blatantly female-centric world, without fear of self-indulgence.