Tony Zurlo’s chapbooks Go Home Bones and Quantum Chaos: Learning to Live with Cosmic Confusion
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78). Worth-Nelson wrote the Peace Corps novel Night Blind. She is the interim director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan – Flint, where she also teaches creative writing.
It’s poignant, and potent, to be reading Tony Zurlo’s anti-war poems in his 2010 chapbook Go Home Bones on this day, the ninth anniversary of 9/11. I’m stilled and tearful, as the day’s observances roll out like dirges on NPR, taking in Zurlo’s grief-infused “The Mystery of You,” for example, that ends, “Each morning a diminished/congregation rises/for the ritual./Each prayer/ another syllable missing.”
Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66) won the 2010 award for Outstanding Poetry Book published by a Peace Corps writer (for his 2009 collection The Mind Dancing). He is a prolific writer (this site, a bit behind, lists 14 books in his bibliography) and his energy cuts across genres, both prose and poetry. Genre jumping requires a facile passion, and while it seems Zurlo is most natural at prose writing, his two 2010 chapbooks, Go Home Bones and Quantum Chaos: Learning to Live with Cosmic Confusion, offer considerable, if somewhat inconsistent, moments of lyrical satisfaction.
Zurlo’s poems in Go Home Bones find their energy in chastening wrath. The anger of the title poem, for example, evincing fury at devastating political delusion, is bracing, as one considers all that began on the terrible morning of 9/11 nine years ago:
The 21 poems in this elegiac collection range from lyrical to bitterly sarcastic, the speaker of the poems in equal parts broken-hearted and outraged. Several find their origins in the Vietnam conflict, as in the bitingly focused “In Memory of 58,000 Names of the Wall:”
It is not easy to write political poems, and Americans historically have not been good at it. We have rarely located a poetic voice for speaking truth to power, and indeed, though I’m crazy about the blunt rhythm of the above excerpt, some of Zurlo’s poems sacrifice music to polemics, a loss for both the poems and the reader.
A similar foible afflicts his very different second 2010 chapbook, Quantum Chaos: Learning to Live with Cosmic Confusion. Here, pursuing a far more whimsical poetic project, Zurlo playfully indulges in 24 sophisticated ruminations finding their heart in the intimidating physics of the universe. Darkly and amusingly preoccupied with scientific diction and playing it against literary allusions, he stares into existential mystery and finds himself chuckling – perhaps to distract from the frightening emptiness, perhaps because of the absurdity of the human condition. In “Quarks of Nature,” for example, he puzzles,
Up is Down,
Could the dance of
I enjoy Zurlo’s witty cogitations, but in Quantum Chaos, especially, his prosey lines interfere with my pleasure. “Notes on Quantum Music,” for example, is a clever riff on sharps, flats and quantum theory, but it is a poem about music with very little music built in. In Part III, he writes:
FACE, “Furry Animals Cook Excellently,” refers to notes in the
I could find no way to read this that made is sound like a poem. It reminded me of a comment by poet Gerald Stern, in an interview in the literary magazine Fourth Genre several years ago: "In poetry, the music comes first, and I would never write a bad line, or what I consider a bad line, in order to get some content into the poem. I'd rather lie than make bad music." It is the music of the lines that distinguishes poetry from prose, and what I missed in some of Zurlo’s work.
However, through both chapbooks Zurlo demonstrates another aspect of poetry that is to be cherished: the poet’s eye. In his charming little book The Art of Attention: The Poet’s Eye, Donald Revell asserts, “I see that poetry is a form of attention, itself the consequence of attention…poems are presences, themselves the consequence of vivid presentation.” Tony Zurlo’s poems meet this criterion. They clearly create a vivid presence, as he observes, argues with and documents a world that matters.