Although it is a slim volume at just under 100 pages, Linda Zisquit’s Return From Elsewhere reads like three books, its three sections quite distinct from each other not only in content and tone, but in form, as well. What unites the poems in this widely various book, which is Zisquit’s fifth, is Zisquit’s engagement with the interaction between two aspects of life that are always with us: mundane daily tasks and mortality. Much of the strange and sorrowful wisdom, beauty, and pathos in these poems comes from Zisquit’s tendency to place the quotidian alongside the tragic. In “Everything’s Falling Into Place,” the speaker’s own thoughts, “the rhythm in my head,” triggers the horror of “fresh-dug / graves.” Zisquit does the neat trick of pushing her poems beyond the boundaries of daily life even as she roots her poems within daily life. There is a continual movement below, beneath, the surface of life. As she writes in “Signs,” “But what I see is not what I know. / What I hear is not what I believe.”
The poems in the book’s first section, “Or,” are short, free verse lyrics; the second section is composed primarily of ghazals, which, as Zisquit explains in a “notes” section at the end, is “a Persian, Arab, and Urdu form, traditionally a love lyric with a refrain and rhyme scheme uniting disjunctive couplets.” Zisquit’s touch isn’t as light here as it is in the other two sections, perhaps because of the restraint of the form. Many of the ghazals use the repeated refrain as their title, too, which can feel like overkill. One of my favorite poems in this section is one that nods at, but freely flouts, ghazal conventions: “Not a Ghazal.” This poem seems to be an invitation: the poems that follow it are in free verse, including a beautiful “Song” in memory of Robert Creeley, the legendary Black Mountain School poet who died in 2005: “A girl in Buffalo again / I read your poems / your violent love / like a fist in my brain // opening opening.”
“Porous,” the book’s final section, consists entirely of a long poem that walks a tightrope brilliantly — a brutally emotional tale of lost love told with gorgeous lyricism. With short, numbered sections, white space, and fragments, the poem evokes the cutting and collaging work of remembering and forgetting: “fragments are better / than the whole / to start remembering,” as she writes in one section. And again, the poet reminds us of how deep the daily can be, rigorously seeking meaning within routine: “What is repetition if not a chance / to change — // for Job it was renewal / of all he would not curse.” In this learned, wise, and accomplished collection, Zisquit turns the daily on its head, finding renewal where others might see only repetition.
Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.