The New Physics: Poems (Wesleyan Poetry Program)
Wesleyan University Press, 1979
80 pp., $10.95
Daniel Bowman, Jr.
Loving Al Zolynas in Two Worlds
What territory is this?
What rivers, what boundaries?
Whose bones beneath the ancient mounds?
—from "The Map of the Hand," by Al Zolynas
During my sophomore year at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York, I got a job cleaning the library through the Buildings and Grounds Department. This was around the time I'd decided to become an English major. I had loved my Intro to Literature class, especially the poetry, and my coursework in other disciplines confirmed that I was no good at anything else.
I don't recall ever seeing my boss at the library, and he left only vague instructions. I could work whatever hours I wished, and other than vacuuming the lobby daily, I should clean up messes and dust anything that needed it. I fell into a bad habit: while layers of grime collected on Bible commentaries from the '50's, I would stand—vacuum cleaner running—in front of the few shelves dedicated to poetry and stare with awe at such serious-sounding names as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, T. S. Eliot, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Then I fell into a worse habit: I'd check out the books and, rather than heading to Chaucer and His Contemporaries (sorry, Dr. Hurley), I'd backpack to the cross-country trails and read these newer poems, poems that looked more like the ones that, in my secret heart, I wanted to write. I copied out longhand into a journal the poems I liked best.
A book called The New Physics, by Al Zolynas, published in 1979, had found its way into the Roberts library and into my backpack, too. Unlike a lot of poems I tried to read but didn't understand, the Zolynas poems approached the mystical realm while being utterly accessible. Finally, I'd found poetry that invited me into its strange world. In The Pleasures of the Text, Roland Barthes wrote, "The text must prove to me that it desires me." The New Physics might have been the first book of poems by which I felt desired.
The poet's observations overlapped with and enhanced what I was learning in other settings. In The Art of Cinema, our professor exposed us to powerful films that demanded a more meaningful kind of attention than what I'd given to most movies. I copied out a Zolynas poem about moviegoing and gave it to my professor. In such synchronous moments, I began to perceive Paula D'Arcy's notion that "God comes to us disguised as our lives."
At the Movies in a Small Town
I sit down inside,
sloping concrete floor;
smudged screen, as if
by huge thumb-prints;
the seat hard as a school desk.
I feel anxious
like a child kept after class.
Somewhere near the front row
a cricket plays his leg.
I realize suddenly
I can laugh or cry with total abandon—
what an opportunity!
I wish I could sit
in all two hundred seats at once.
Fast forward to spring 2011. In a poetry course I was teaching at Houghton College, the subject of poems about movies came up. I had a rather fuzzy recollection of a poem I read, and liked, in college. I typed into Google every association I could make, and eventually came up with the title of a book: The New Physics, by one Al Zolynas. Excited, I went to Amazon and ordered a used copy (it had been out of print for a long time). How would it hold up after all these years?
Learning is idiosyncratic, discovery as random as the poetry acquisitions of a tiny Christian college library. Sorting it all out, moving from innocence to experience, is not so much fun as soaking up poems without discrimination, waking in a world where Al Zolynas is equal to T. S. Eliot. So it hurt a little to crack open The New Physics and see that it was not really so new anymore. The poems often intensely echo the work of Robert Bly and James Wright, a kind of Deep Image-Lite that sometimes makes, in fact, direct references to the aforementioned practitioners' work. In "Early Spring Morning," Zolynas writes, "I look down at my feet. / My toes have split / my slippers and are growing / into the ground. / There are leaves sprouting on my knuckles." It's probably best that the poem has gone away quietly—this chattier, less personal working out of Wright's famous "blessing" in which the speaker realizes that "if [he] stepped out of [his] body [he] would break / into blossom." One cannot un-ring such a (heavily anthologized) bell. Speaking of bells, they've long since tolled for any number of poems in The New Physics about geese, clouds, or walking that sound a lot like Bly in Silence in the Snowy Fields, and for the amorous lines that owe something to Loving a Woman in Two Worlds.
But there is not much sense in conducting a source study or making case notes on the anxiety of influence when reexamining an obscure volume of poetry (especially a first book). "Ignorance is not just a blank space on a person's mental map," Thomas Pynchon writes. "It has contours." The New Physics helped introduce me to the contours of my ignorance, showed me that I didn't know what I didn't know: the shapes and structures and rules of engagement in the unformed places in my mind. When I was nineteen, God came to me disguised as Al Zolynas, and I'll always be the better for it.