Reviewed by Timothy Henry
There is an index at the back of Zachary Schomburg's second book of poetry, Scary, No Scary. Many books of poetry contain an index, usually an alphabetical list of the poems' titles. Schomburg's index, however, lists 84 themes that appear throughout the poems; for instance, “Birthday, or the idea of apologizing for missing one's party” can be found on pages 24 and 62, poems about “Leaving (and never returning)” can be found on 10 different pages, while “Sawing in half, or the idea of division” can be found on 6 pages, though you might want to also look at the poems listed under “Part-species, or hybrid species (see also Sawing in half).” Schomburg's poems, gracefully arranged across 79 pages, are just as strange and unorthodox as the index of themes, but the book's uncanny beauty isn't limited to these numerical games: this is a cohesive and (successfully) daring collection of poems, often reading like the diary of a delusional child-prodigy, with an absurd yet compelling narrative strung throughout.
As the title suggests, Scary, No Scary attempts to find the thin line (if it even exists) between terror and pleasure. What better way to do this than by relying on an adolescent's perspective, albeit a highly intelligent, highly promiscuous youth, living in a seemingly post-apocalyptic universe. The landscape of Scary, No Scary is unchartered literary territory: chandeliers made from broken dishes, nameless men and women transforming into trees, boys becoming hummingbirds, and twins named “Invisible” and “Not Invisible.” As frightening as all this might sound, Schomburg’s tone remains hilarious throughout: “Either way, let’s not just stand here/with our fingers up our butts.”
If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is this generation’s great somber novel about the post-apocalyptic world, Scary, No Scary makes the end of modern civilization look a bit more fun, and much more psychedelic. Like The Road, Schomburg’s future universe is devoid of personal identity: “Neither of us have names / especially you.” Life is rather abundant as well, especially trees. We can all rest assured that the youth of the post-world will still be afraid of entering the woods late at night, not fearful of wild animals or witches, but fearful of finding what is “half-buried” beneath dead leaves, be it a bodiless woman or one’s own beating heart. Becoming part of the woods, too, is of great concern:
Soon you’ll be
You’ll go camping in the woods
and never come back.
Animal life is also abundant, especially insects and hummingbirds, both of which humans can randomly turn into:
How do you tell someone
their family is
How do you tell someone
their boy is
Jaguars, too: “You were becoming more and more jaguar.”
But even with all this anthropomorphic action, the post-apocalyptic teenager still retains teenage desires. Unlike today’s youths, who are really only concerned with accidental pregnancy and unwelcomed transmitted diseases (if they are concerned about anything), the sexually adventurous kids of Schomburg’s future have bigger concerns, such as choosing “between floating eternally in a buoyant cage of hummingbird bones down a river of lava or a river of blood.” Break-ups, too, will take on a different form, as seen in the prose poem “Goodbye Lessons”: “I have to say goodbye . . . I will know that goodbyes are when you eat yourself to death.” In The Road, we had to be concerned with cannibalistic wanderers eating our children; in Scary, No Scary, we need to be concerned about our kids eating themselves. All concerns aside, these kids are still looking for a good place to make out:
I know a place where we can escape the dead hummingbird
problem, a pond no one knows about, cold and clean. It is fed
by a mountain stream. We can take off all our clothes there and
maybe have sex.
Scary, No Scary is organized into four sections. The first is mainly comprised of short, wonderfully sonic lyrics, reminiscent of Robert Creeley (in the midst of a bad LSD trip) or, more recently, Graham Foust (if Foust was an evil clown). These poems introduce the narrator and his views on the scarce world in which he lives. The second section consists mainly of prose poems, surreal yet darkly beautiful, like a horror-core band (comprised of musicians who really know how to play their instruments) interpreting James Tate. The final two sections are sequences, the first being “The Histories” and the second “The Pond.” “The Histories” tells a story of the narrator in his dining room (which doesn’t actually exist) setting a table with dishes beneath a chandelier (none of which exist, either) in a dark, floorless and ceiling-less house. All that exists, it seems, is the narrator, who simply describes this non-existent scene. “The Pond” may be referring to the pond where the narrator takes his lover earlier in the book, but we will never know for sure, since the narrator is unsure of everything:
At the edge of the pond
someone who looks like me
is holding hands
with someone who looks like you.
I begin to wonder who I am
because I don’t look like me.
So what are we to make of Zachary Schomburg’s universe in Scary, No Scary? Should we be fearful of what is to come after the apocalypse? Of course, but instead of being afraid of cannibals and violence, we should be afraid of morphing into hummingbirds and having to apologize for missing a friend’s birthday party. Will the end of the world bring just the “scary” or the “no scary” as well? As far as we can tell, there will be a combination of both. One of the only moments where the narrator actually tells us he is fearful of something comes from “The Black Hole”: “I’m afraid of myself.” Considering this could be said about most people today, things might not be too different. Hopefully, each day that comes after the apocalypse will flow into the next as perfectly as the movements of these poems.