The Last Clear Narrative, Rachel Zucker. Wesleyan University Press, 2004. 105 pp. $13.95

reviewed by Amy Newlove Schroeder

The title of Rachel Zucker’s second book is ironic: She makes it clear that there are no clear narratives. “[W]when the narrator says he’s / …dreaming of his mother maybe / his first memory / his birth / – I tend to doubt his hazy reportage,” she writes. In these poems, Zucker explores the innate unpredictability of what should be the most direct story of all: the birth of a child.

Structurally, the book does follow a narrative: Zucker begins before conception, and continues through pregnancy (many of the poems are subtitled with the number of weeks pregnant) to birth. But this seemingly straightforward development is interrupted and disrupted not only by the unexpected loss of a twin, but also by the speaker’s own internal experience of motherhood. A poem titled “Being Marked or Obvious (18 Weeks)” tells us : “Others know or thing something of me my recent activities / the supermarket bagger smiles, shakes her head / security guard says congratulations I walk by…” Zucker’s emotional responses to her pregnancy, and to the world around her, demonstrate the fundamental strangeness of motherhood — how everything about having a child is not quite what one expects. “Having a Baby, Atom Bomb” declares, “three months later a friend has a baby describes the labor now we have babies have babies and nothing in common…”

Some of the most moving poems are the one that concern the death of a twin in utero: “One can’t say, the doctor says, dead exactly...” Here Zucker takes the potentially dangerous step of comparing this loss to world tragedies such as the Holocaust or Rwanda. She succeeds here through self-consciousness: “”My dead grandmother tells me not to make a collage of tragedy./ They are not the same, she says. // Suffering’s not one substance.” The poems manage to persuade us that suffering is one substance — that every loss hurts. Like these poems, much of the book is balanced on the keen edge between sentimentality and genuine sentiment; Zucker tips the poems the right way most of the time.

The poems alternate tonally between the wryly self-aware, and the sweetly ruminative: “the snow a window the child we did not conceive that night I saw / you then this is another winter…” Her style, which is flat, prosaic and unadorned, complements the subject matter; the anti-poetic nature of her poems often works to heighten the lyric intensity. While there is much in these poems that could fall flat — lines like “it has gone out of fashion / to describe” or “I / understand, at last / what marriage is” — Zucker repeatedly rescues the poems with surprising images, and moments of authentically rendered emotion. The final sequence of poems, which depicts the moment-by-moment birth of the child, is most chancy of all — risking not only sentimentality, but also the unappealing self-obsession of new parents. Zucker brings it off though a combination of jaw-clenching particularity of detail and masterful honesty: “No position, no angle, ‘way to manage.’ / Someone said, “this is the crescendo” and I thought / fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck-you.”  The Last Clear Narrative takes a lot of risks, and ultimately succeeds in freshly depicting what is both one of the most common, and risky, of human experiences.

Amy Newlove Schroeder is the new reviews editor for Slope.