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Poet's Sampler: Martha Zweig

What do you get when you cross Flannery O'Connor with Gerard Manley Hopkins? Something sprung of rhythm, fierce of feeling, dappled down and doubled over, whistled out of terror and intelligence. Welcome to the work of Martha Zweig.

Compounded of spirit and of spunk, these poems possess what possesses them: an energy that can enthrall. It is a force of life. Under the influence of Zweigian rhetoric, readers on a trail of moments of astonishment may be forgiven if they fail to notice undercurrents of momentousness. But the poems bring us to their urgent ends, sprung from the very depths we've overlooked.

By nature, and in nature, is the human habit legible. Zweig reads us, here in the animal kingdom, by our patterns. She keeps a cool eye not only on the carnal developments, but on their disappearances as well. The palpable particulars accumulate, only to turn to a last line's puff of time. This is a poet conscientious (not just conscious) of the generality of oddity, the countlessness of individuality. Shell and snow, machine and feather, pepper, petal, cell--they come and go in a creaturely eye. All have in common their peculiarity, their perishability. The big bad fish--that gobbles up the lesser lovelier one--which gobbled up the clownish, not-so-bad one--lives in a glass box. Zweig's own big bad eye is watching. Darwin's anagram is inward. Anything can die.

But Zweig is quirkily equipped to note, in verse, the converse. There lurks about fatality a loveliness. The split pod spews a seed. The troubled lover shuffles out a sound. And soon, from the scruff of the wrung neck, spouts a song.

--Heather McHugh

Poems by Martha Zweig


Chain Letter

The Particulars

Bad Fish


The Fleet


Believe it! there'll be the odd two, three
dainty birches, for instance--flourishing
enterprises of green spies--airily
totting up any & all of its artless & partial
variants-over-the-years into your final
inexorable confession outright,

dear who; vireos, too, comparing
corroborative notes they'll next
tuck away & off with to the distantly
solicitous authorities they answer to
for their little expectant lives so much
too easily outstripping yours & mine;

& the indiscriminate light
that lies down with anybody,
nestles into anybody's lenient arms,
curls up inside the top
peach & the bottom peach unto the last
basket still picking when the world winks out

no doubt the least breeze yet to insinuate
among the hairs of your head picks up
your idlest agreeable hum, snatches
of lyric I missed, & sooner or later a name
you'll allow you knew me by, & thereafter bit by bit
the whole shuffle of our poor secrets, my love.

Later & finally, when they zero down to me,
when they send, say, the ocean, bulging with misdemeanor,
to truckle up to my feet on its white knees
so that I must gather it onto my lap, what precious
little then be left & to wheedle after!--a gray pouch
of my baby teeth I want back. Pinch of my birthday dust.

Chain Letter

Send me a modest money & copy
this very verse off ten
times new to the unlisted
likemindcd you might know of & go
ahead, add to it one of your own.
Send all the verses off,
& me the money the ten times.

If you positively recognize
this in advance as one of those tests
you flunk, then copy ten from the lists
of the tests you flunk, add this & send
each off with its modest money
to me care of an institutional
depravity of your choice.

Now you toss helplessly
among contending tens
of your favorites! each one hasn't heard
all these years the least peep
out of you even though you do utter
one many waking moments--time
of day you might've but didn't die,

time of day you brim with gratitude,
flush again for what sweet
houseroom the world makes. Then send
me what time you took to get this
far, if you did; also the blush
making the face in the morning, it
doesn't have to be yours.

The Particulars

A shell drops as in water.
When it opens, these are our bodies:
some green plants, some animals,
some machines, the stuff and objects.

They are all moving at once.
They have their noises.
Who decides the nature of one
decides every other.

When they are studied they simplify,
all into the same fluid
They mate in secert.
Anything can be born.

first published in Epoch

Bad Fish

Hours on end unobserved in its
humming tank, the bigger fish
of two has killed the smaller, has eaten it up
nearly half, from the tail in. Bad big fish,
you'll patrol your lurid
cubicle all alone now!

In its heyday, the dead one, speedy
damsel who shimmered slinkiest purple & green,
a bad fish too, repeatly ambushed &
terrorized to death the third,
white-banded red one, tomato clown,
not a bad fish, I regret it.

Last fish, you big one, lengthy turquoise
& green luna wrasse, roll your eyes,
eat your heart out, binge, loop over & binge glass
wall to glass corner,
you can see me, fan the slits
of your bright particular gills

at my nostrils & sneer for now,
then waft off queenly, swirl
into coral ladyrinths all to yourself: might-as-well-
be endless mobius wiggle room
you conform to & monoplize, you mouth, you
anus, you beauty.


In today's permission, a dozen chickens
scratch up their little squalor together.
The yard peeps kernels. Suits me, now, these back
porch steps & across my lap a damp
tea-towel to shell the peas from: pinch
to pop a pod-seam's fat end open, then split
straight along thumbwise, & even
blindly the peas seem to tighten desperate
tiny white tails over the pot, where

were we? quick, now--brainstorm adorable
names for newborn pups before your dad
gets back! saves some, saves more than none; he'll scowl,
you kneel, point which of them is which, speak up
distinct so each particular one takes up
its particular modest prestige. O christen
before you're grown & before you bed away,
away from me, or you'll never own to your own
& proper answer, just poor twin dirt!--I missed

you but then, like the chicka chix,
a man's children & peas riot around
of no conspicuous note, & my own
name, I believe, was the name of all whatever
there is at any one time, no more farfetched
than a sledge horse's my sister
could've called out to & they followed
each other down the lost track of time
switching in the dandelion puffs.

The Fleet

When space puts to earth
Something of what it is
The wet ground stows it,
Or the sugary leaves do;
As the moon winnows the fish, all
Of them breed in its huge haul

A stock of changes;
Rays pepper and criss-cross
Creature from creature
From race from kind to the end
Of all of their permutations.
Suppose that the ships are real:

They scout where they go
For anyplace neutral.
Everything alive
In their husbandry attends
Each landing to find it is part
Of the same expedition.

first published in Shenandoah

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