Review of Fjords, Vol. II by Zachary Schomburg

Gray and black graphic of three silhouetted human figures seemingly standing on a beach at night, shining flashlights—small disks of glowing silver—at the viewer.

Fjords, Vol. II by Zachary Schomburg

Black Ocean, 2021

70 pages, $16

Reviewed by Amy Miller

Nothing tells it slant quite like a dream—all those veiled messages the subconscious is blinking at us while we’re asleep. And in his 2021 prose-poem collection Fjords, Vol. II, Zachary Schomburg marries the strange narrative of dreams with another language of telling it slant: poetry. The result is a Dante-esque tour through the speaker’s subconscious, led by a wry guide who is always aware of the absurdity of dream images  as well as their roots in deeply remembered love and fear. It’s a journey that, like a complex dream, is  uncannily familiar and often unsettling. And, in the case of Fjords, Vol. II,—thankfully—it’s often laugh-out-loud funny.

The comedy is crucial in these poems. The reader often has to hang on, only intuiting where the story is going. There’s loss and remembered trauma, but also houses that suddenly appear next door, and people showering in the lobby of an auto shop. In the tangled narrative (which feels like a dream, but we’re never quite sure), the poems tell their stories in a kind of shorthand that only the subconscious fully understands. So an unexpectedly funny twist keeps us in the game, rooting for this narrator even if we’re not always sure what we’re seeing:

A small crowd begins
to form around you. “Hey, it’s the Stud of the Year!”
says someone else. “Look, I’m not the Stud of the Year,”
you say somewhat under your breath. You don’t mean to
embarrass anyone. One man, upon looking at you, faints,
but no one else seems to notice or care.

(“Stud of the Year”)

Just picking up the book tells you you’re in for something different. The cover offers a mystery: a black-on-gray image of three silhouetted people holding what appear to be flashlights. The book itself, elegantly designed by Black Ocean press, is almost square, framing its compact prose poems. Accented with black endsheets, it’s a pleasure to the hands and eyes while the poems move through their stories of small towns, fathers and sons, couples and landscapes that morph and disappear. 

“Rita, is everything ok?” “The life,” she said,
looking squarely at the bush. I looked more closely at it
too. It was, in fact, moving. Not moving in the wind,
but moving away, sliding slowly toward the trees on the
other side of the lawn. All afternoon, we watched it go,
past the trees, a speck in the setting sun. Then the trees,
too, started to move…

(“This Is the Life”)

Hopefully grad students somewhere are writing papers on the lineage of modern prose poem collections. This is a style that gravitates toward the surreal and the unexpected, and this book reminded me of an earlier one, Mathias Svalina’s Creation Myths (New Michigan Press, 2007), a hilarious and unsettling collection of surreal fable-poems about the origin of the universe infused with Biblical language and pop-culture references. That comparison, it turns out, was no accident—Zachary Schomburg mentions Svalina in his (funny, strange, and diverting) “Notes” section at the back of Fjords. Another fine example of this surreal prose-poem style is Born (Airlie Press, 2017)—about the loss of an infant child and the attendant dehumanizing medical technology—by another Oregon poet, Jon Boisvert.

The dreams—or are they memories? or are they parables?—in Fjords, Vol. II, like Svalina’s Creation Myths, begin to take on the feeling of a religious text. For what is a religion, especially an ancient one, but a set of riddles that seem to promise higher knowledge if only you can decipher them? Comparing these stories to ones in the Bible or the Koran, or any number of sacred texts, becomes part of the fun—and, your subconscious may hint to you, part of the greater mystery.

Another of Schomburg’s great strengths is his last lines. Again and again, the endings of these poems startle: an image out of the blue, a comment that spins the whole poem back on itself, reversing what you expected to think, or a profound epiphany punctuating what seemed at first to be a joke.

Please, someone, land in my room. I
will make great art. I will make a great piece of art. I will
make a great set of choices forever. Here’s my first one:
one hook of joy.

(“Feel the Falcon”)

Along with the dreams, there are nightmares in here too: vague monsters, brutality, regret, and engulfing darkness—or are these more trappings of an emerging religion, with its apparitions and damnation? Still, the book has heart, or takes heart. Like waking after a dream, we try to wake up to a kind world. And, like in a dream, we are never sure if we’ve found it.

These days, I do
things right. I count the potatoes, I get in line for a good
haircut. The kind of life one lives in a house. The kind of
house that fits perfectly around its key. Just not this key.

  (“Kind of Man”)

Head-and-shoulders photo of a white middle-aged woman with long silver-blond hair in a blue blouse against a roughly textured off-white background.

Amy Miller’s Astronauts, a chronicle of two sisters and addiction, won the Chad Walsh Chapbook Prize from Beloit Poetry Journal and was a finalist for the 2023 Oregon Book Award. Her full-length collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award from Concrete Wolf Press. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrow Street, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Missouri Review, Narrative, Terrain, and ZYZZYVA, and she received a 2021 Oregon Literary Fellowship. A longtime book editor and book-design nerd, she lives in Ashland, Oregon, where she works as the editorial content manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and serves as poetry editor for the NPR listeners’ guide Jefferson Journal.

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