REVIEW OF MAYA JEWELL ZELLER’S “OUT Takes/GLOVE BOX
By Alina Stefanescu
Maya Jewell Zeller. Out Takes/ Glove Box. New American Press. November 2023. $18
“& something not wedded”: A reading of Maya Jewell Zeller’s Out Takes/ Glove Box
Catullus may have written an apostrophe to his boat, but Maya Jewell Zeller has written a book of poems that sinks every vessel inside it – a book that refuses to float in its proper slot in the port of poetics.
She doesn’t pretend otherwise. “I know you’re afraid of me,” the speaker of a poem-spell tells her interlocutor, “so terrified I might wildly confess all the things.” I know. I know.
Both the “I” and the “know” are destabilized by Zeller’s lyric fluidity.
The ancient Greek word “autopoiesis” refers to a continuous inventing of the self, where selfhood is taken as intrinsically boundless and constantly shifting in relation to its terrain. In an autopoietic mode, Zeller’s Out Takes/ Glove Box beclouds pronouns, personhood, place, and memory.
An “out-take” refers to a movie scene or sequence that is filmed but not included in the final version. Out-takes defy the idea of containment; including the out-take refuses to take out the indefinite and nebulous. The poet aims to spill her gorgeous figures all over your floorboard and defy the material conditions of class as well as neoliberal subjectivity. And she won’t stop until you meet her in the impossibilities.
“Out-takes From the Making,” a series of sketch-like poems, presents us with eight etudes that occupy the field loosely. The title makes it explicit that these poems were not taken out. Each one is a self-portrait in relation to an object, place, or memory. The speaker cannot stop moving. The rolling of the car wheel is contrasted with the gallop of the horse, a motion foreign to the mermaid and sea creatures of other poems. All these ways of moving, returning, and revisiting her childhood “like heavy wood carried without a wheelbarrow.”
“VII: Its Rusted Axle” whispers across the page slowly, the shifts in tempo ply hesitation. I held my own hand when encountering this anaphora of ampersands:
& something unsaid
& something not wedded
to anything worldly
Flowers shoot from the open mouth of a trout in the cover-art collage created by Angelo Maneage. Similar images swarm between pages whose section breaks are marked by black paper with epigraphs in white serif font. The calibrated phantasm of the visual design lures the mind towards the sort of attention given to a symphony.
“The trout’s unlikeliness is its charm,” I thought while studying “II. The Horse We Opened Together.” Zeller plays the horsepower of a car engine against the intestines of the horse being opened surgically to deliver a baby. As the speaker and her mother watch a small mare bumble across the meadow, the poem ends abruptly, with the single-line stanza:
like a trout
Is it though? And isn’t it? Zeller’s simile doesn’t make an argument; it moves by association, emphasizing relationality as knowledge. There is no deconstruction of the horsepower engine’s masculinity and the horse’s carved-open femininity. Zeller doesn’t excavate the words; she elects, instead, to ride the energy of their apposition, and it is this insistence on relatingness that drives the poems.
Contemporary feminist poetics often draws on the metaphor of the woman’s body as house. This house-wife metaphor dominates commodity culture, from table settings to garden party success, and Zeller refuses its rootedness. She junks the house as a vehicle for self-description, and articulates the speaker through various objects in motion.
“Our barbed little vaginas” are dropped on the page without defining the reference to the vagina dentata. Cliches and stereotypes are left standing, estranged. This fantastic use of apposition ties us to the impossible, and impossibility has a way of evoking the eternal.
The past beckons from the very beginning. Zeller’s prefatory poem, “Field Girl Come Home,” balances the voices of others drawing an adult woman back to her childhood.
“They say the barn is haunted with the ghosts of horses,” the speaker acknowledges.
the rules. You broke them. You gleam past
the bovines in their tight hides. They say
a river erodes six inches of its banks
Objects serve as vehicles to reach the past, but each vehicle is abandoned for a different one. The speaker has no formal loyalty to the vessels themselves. At one point, leaving an automobile by the side of the road, the speaker leaps onto the “horse-mother” to return home. If it is not clear whether she actually does this, or just parks on the side of the road and imagines it, this is because imagining is Zeller’s favorite landscape.
“I drove here on the roads / of my brain,” Zeller writes in “Documentary,” a poem that probes the documentary form. Photographs document what we want from them; the illusion of proximity allows the poet to play on this by positioning documentary forms — the photo, the paper map, the digital map, the screen, the book, the vintage sports hero shot, etc. — to instantiate the brain’s relationship to what has passed.
In “When They Scanned Her Brain for Love,” the pronouns are played against each other to the point of dissolution. The animal found in her is indistinct from the sea found in the speaker:
When they scanned
my brain for love they found only
my longing to come and go
This blurring of boundaries between interior and exterior is gendered: it is intentionally structured to challenge gender discourses and tropes of selfhood. Zeller moves from “those vessels of salt” in the “oocyte opera” to oceanic mermaids of a different poem without articulating a cosmology. The speaker swims through herself but refuses to anoint any border to that self or the space around it. Stylistically, formal transitions are sparse; no “take” aims to be definitive.
One is struck by this purposive blurring in the out-takes. “Will we miss the black fabric of sex, like a dull beer still desired,” Zeller asks in the single-sentence question that takes up the bulk of “Out-take as a Curl of Dusk”.
In “Out-take as a Narrow Dress,” she dances around a definition in tercets: “Therianthropy: the man becomes beast.” Wikipedia defines therianthropy as “the mythological ability or affliction of individuals to metamorphose into animals or hybrids by means of shapeshifting.” The problem of women who shapeshift has been irking men since the days of the ancient Greeks, and Zeller’s allusions to myth refuse to answer these questions. Instead, she picks up her tercet-skirt and keeps moving.
Several poems take the form of spells, the particular arrangement of words used as magical charms or incantation. If the poem must make things happen, it will do so in a way that challenges patriarchal constructions of “making” as well as that record of male-indentified happenings known as “history.”
“Spell for the Face of Terry Sawchuk (1966) & for Medusa Nebula,” for example, brings two unlike objects— a Canadian hockey star and a planetary nebula in the constellation of Gemini — together in a spell that stretches vertically up and down the page. “Even if the edge of you blurs with me,” the speaker coaxes her interlocutor closer, urging the intimacy of colloquy.
if we can just admit it we’ll be so much more
healthy or we’ll turn to stone completely let’s say everything
The long lines of the poem reach across the page vertically, marking spaces within each line as if to indicate the speaker is running now — there are gaps reflecting the lengthened stride— only to return, flush against the left margin, and utter the words that keeps all the women of myth silent: “smash the face the rhetorical situation like a hand in glove smashes into a cheekbone”.
You want violence? Zeller brings it in pharmakos of spell-binding. There is a “Spell for Auralogy,” or the reading of auras. There is the speaker’s return to her “essential ghost” and to climbing the vanished tree of childhood. There is a profound disrespect for what some might call “reality.” The poet will use anything that moves to get inside the imagination— oocytes, old cars, horses, glove boxes, oceans. She will give us “a locket full of worms.” She will lure us towards “his diesel mouth.” She will undo representative poetics from the inside, reminding the reader that realism’s clinical language, its representative in-takes, haven’t done much for women. Myth, fairy tale, etc give the so-called gentler gender more breathing room.
“Today, I find myself nearly completely done instead of devastated, the way I feel about the hail hitting the last of the cherry leaves from the weeping tree, and the street blackened with melt while the quail, their little head-feathers bobbing, scurry under the juniper that crowds the lamp post,” Zeller wrote years ago in ‘A Wrong Turning in American _____:’ An Essay in Parts“. And she quotes Toi Derricotte to agree “I am not the “I” in my poems, nor in my life. This last part was me.”
As for the present, Zeller takes leave in this collection with a single-stanza poem titled “Out-take / Storyboard”:
What I mean to say is
being a mother made me feel
like a myth. What I mean is
I’m a fish.
This is not the last word of this marvelous book, but the beginning. The autopoiesis refuses the terms she is given.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama. Recent books include Ribald (Bull City Press), Dor (Wandering Aengus Press Prize), and Every Mask I Tried On (Brighthorse Books). More online at alinastefanescuwriter.com.