The Pedestrians


The Pedestrians

-Book reviewed by Kendra Bartell

“These are really two separate books…” Rachel Zucker, author of The Pedestrians, recently stated in an interview with Tin House. Her new collection of poems is divided into two parts, entitled Fables and The Pedestrians. “When Wave suggested publishing these together, I wasn’t sure at first but eventually really loved the way the two books talk to each other.” Readers will be similarly impressed by the synergy of these two works. They will also note and enjoy contrasting the prose and poetry. In many ways, these two titles are strikingly and pleasantly different.

Fables, the first half of the book, is written in discrete sections of prose, given locational titles like “ocean” or “mountains.” The movements within the sections can sometimes range from one longer poem to a few smaller units, unmarked beyond a bit of extra white space on the page. This presentation prompts readers to treat the section as though it were a novella, but the musicality and lyrical control of Zucker’s language are pure poetry.

“She realized that this city, so unlike her city, was exactly like her city and that everyone in her city was exactly like everyone in this city and that they were all animals and that animals can only be animals.”

What makes these tales so engrossing is the way in which they dismantle and question the traditions of fables. Indeed, readers encounter references to animals like jackdaws, snakes, and bees, but none of them talks and no morals are set in stone at the end of each section. Instead, Zucker presents a detached, third person voice describing the daily banalities and conversations of a wife and her husband, the cities in which they live, and the places they visit. Readers are left to fill in blanks, and to engage Zucker’s larger questions about life.

At times, Zucker challenges assumptions regarding “the American Dream,” questioning the traditional concept of a family that is composed of a husband, wife and children, all of whom participate in a stable middle class household, and make an annual vacation. None of these actions are without consequence: real life enjoys more diverse opportunities and ways of being, she suggests. There is no “Should,” or at least there should be no expectations for what constitutes a standard or “normal” existence. Precise imagery drives the point home. For example, the husband is sometimes described as having a “snake-tongue,” and both the husband and the wife say hurtful things to one another, then remain silent.

“We are animals,” he says, happily, after sex.

            “No,” she thinks. Not anymore.

This unflinching depiction of a family is unstoppable in its clarity and force of language. The themes and imagery unleashed by the characters’ situation help merge the two sections. Formally, The Pedestrians is made up of first person perspective lineated poems. They speak to a lineage grounded in New York. At times, readers will detect echoes of O’Hara and his casual chatty nature. The voice, however, is uniquely Zucker’s. She creates quick, moving poems that will often rattle readers. In this section, Zucker also reveals dreams, “real poems,” and moments of her days, filtered through a casual voice that understates the depth of her message. Even her simplest poems demand rereading:

Real poem (Happiness)

We’re all fucked up because in English

the phrase “to make someone happy

suggests that’s possible.

In The Pedestrians, Zucker uses quick, colloquial language, engaging readers, in what John Ashbery in his epigraph, calls “the quirky things that happen” to the narrator. The stark, bare language of the poems is direct and pulsing with the poet’s clarity.

This frankness and understated depth unites the book’s two parts. Distinct in their styles, Fables and The Pedestrians are unified by an honest voice that is empowered to explore many aspects of human life, including themes of femininity, marriage and motherhood. When Zucker uses the third person in Fables, the radical form shift is justified by the precision of her words throughout the collection. What is unsaid in her prose poems resonates with the colloquialisms of the second half of the book. Each element is in constant conversation with the rest of the text. Likewise, readers are prompted to participate in the dialogue. The book calls for rereading, and the whole is a pleasurable and lyrical journey.


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