Never Mind the Wasp
In a new collection of poetry, Stephen Zerance explores how we respond to danger, risk & fear
by Noah Stetzer
“I’m a danger whore…I’m fascinated by crime and the entertainment aspect behind the horrible things that happen to people…Murder as coliseum spectacle. The glamorization of exploitation & fear. I wanted to play with the idea that danger only exists for those who are afraid.”—Stephen Zerance
Welcome to the gritty world of Safe Danger (Indolent Books) by Stephen Zerance: Here are scenes with killers and a radiator’s hiss; “chains, spiders, thorns” … “a dog blind with rabies”; a komodo dragon and a “black funnel of bees.” Along with this menagerie, Zerance also shows us films from his Scary Movie Marathon series and celebrates icons like Lindsay Lohan, Madonna, Anne Sexton, and JonBenét Ramsey. When asked about how HIV operates within the collection, Zerance says, “It is operating right under the skin, informing the poems dealing with sex, risk, gay life. It’s one of the antagonists of a cast….I’m speaking to how fear operates and can be consuming, no matter if that fear is rational or not.”
This collection is like eavesdropping on a poet at the work of myth-making. Zerance shifts between Narcissus and Apollo to personal scenes from growing up and breaking down. And the result is that while each poem is like a piece of carved glass they come together to make a mosaic that tells a greater story, a bigger story. This big story frets over the body and its place in a room, in a family, and in the city. And like most collections of myths or fables, it’s a picture of exquisite beauty next to harsh brutality.
Next to poems that feel larger than life, you’ll find delicate hand-carved poems like “Siberia,” “The Night Watch,” and “Skintight.” In these poems, quiet restraint powers the images. If other poems within this collection have lightning and thunder, these poems are the taut moments between. “Siberia” takes us inside a vehicle, two figures: a driver and a passenger. The poem’s concision allows me to fill in details that aren’t there. Of course it’s nighttime, it feels like the passenger maybe was hitchhiking—I think I’m putting in dangers from my own experience. This collection feels like it invites that kind of participation. I’m in the vehicle too, thrilled and anxious to have the driver’s hand on my leg, his hand with the red blemish on it. What the poem doesn’t say gives room for my own imagination to run wild along with the speaker in the poem.
In “The Night Watch,” I join in right away:
I hunt in the mirror for a scare
inside my mouth, the first white
spot on the back of my throat, checking
if my gums have receded from the teeth
I have been this solitary figure searching an anxious bathroom mirror avoiding my own eyes as I map my body’s condition. Here Zerance has got me by the hand and his deft sentence work carries me confidently through the first eight lines. Then, like a quick turn of the head, the poem sums up this particular kind of self-scrutiny: “The lint / from a black sock shocks me.” And from here the poem shifts to a different bathroom, this time the speaker is six-years old and playing at drowning during a nighttime bath. Zerance gives me the two scenes to do with what I will—and so I see the man in the first half of the poem remembering himself as the boy in the second half of the poem. Here are keen overlapping themes of singular attention to the body and ideas of mortality. The way a child only plays with ideas of dying but an older person confronts with more attention. And finally in this poem as the child floats face down pretending to have drowned he waits, “for my father to come up the stairs.” For the child at play, death’s power is to be used over those left behind; unlike the older person, for whom the power of dying makes him fear his own socks.
In these two poems maybe the poems are wrestling with bodies: in “Siberia” with a (maybe anonymous) driver, in “The Night Watch” with the speaker in relation to his younger self and now. In “Skintight” there is a cutting confrontation between the father and his queer-bodied son. Again, Zerance’s skill is on full view here: His talent for knowing what to keep in the poem is equal to his talent for knowing what to leave out. This razor-sharp scene of a young person choosing how to dress—one of the first ways to try at full ownership of our bodies—and how that choice clashes with the father. A thing Zerance does so well in this poem is the shift in verb tense and thus in time. He signals the poem is a memory and so while it begins in present tense it ends in the knowing voice of the poet later, looking back. I am right there with the poet when after the scene plays out between the young man struggling to appease his father by wearing “the right clothes” his father asks, “Do you feel like a man?” My ears still ring with the implications of this ending: the father’s concept of the state of manhood being outside-in, like you could soak in his idea of it and eventually it would take. Also, there is an Escher-like idea of clothes on the outside directing feelings on the inside. And the idea of how we look on the outside carries me back to the poem’s central scene of the young man in the bathroom—a place where we often confront and/or embrace our individual bodies so often alone and maybe with the greatest honesty—his family meanwhile outside the door with their entreaties and demands.
Zerance signals the severity of danger at work here by putting these poems next to poems where he celebrates horror movies and his opus on the JonBenét Ramsay murder. When asked about the breadth and scope of his ten-page epic responding to the Ramsay murder, Zerance says: “I wanted to share details lost on the public, shed light on that evidence, but then also look towards how the media portrays the entire thing. They projected all these very adult themes on a six year old. Slowed down her pageant videos, added sultry music, and broadcast them on CNN. They sold sex. It’s shocking and twisted what they did to her body. The entire poem sequence is a meditation on the body. In that way it does speak to the other poems in the collection, since all are very body conscious.”
I keep thinking about the “safe danger” of watching a newscast or a movie like The Amityville Horror—where you feel scared but know you’re really okay—up next to poems like “The Night Watch”—where the feelings of danger, while still equally cinematic, are almost more arresting because of their day-to-day setting and their vulnerability. But this collection doesn’t let its readers forget that its got swagger: “Call me stud…” “I’ve slept with every man in my neighborhood…” and doesn’t let us go without reminding us, “talking to the serial killer, I flirt.” I’m in.
Stephen Zerance is currently working on his second collection. His poems have appeared in West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Assaracus, and Knockout, among other journals. He has also been featured on the websites of Lambda Literary and Split This Rock. Zerance received his MFA from American University, where he received the Myra Sklarew Award. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with an extensive shoe collection. Find him on Twitter @stephnz.
Noah Stetzer is the author of Because I Can See Needing a Knife, a collection of poems published in 2016 by Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has received the 2015 Christopher Hewitt Award for Poetry and the 39th New Millennium Award for Poetry. Noah’s poems have appeared in the New England Review, Nimrod International Journal of Prose & Poetry, Green Mountains Review, and Bellevue Literary Review. He is a 2014 Fellow from the Lambda Literary Retreat and a current work-study scholar at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Noah now lives in Kansas City and can be found online at www.noahstetzer.com.