There’s something about writers writing about writers. A space opens up—a little world—where both authors reside, facing one another from their places in the lamplight of their own desks, pens suspended in mid-air. Trying to figure something out. It’s a small and singular world, and yet vast. Volumes line the walls (think Interstellar’s infinity library, sans Matthew McConaughey). Smoke hangs in the air. A wave crashes. This is the world Jaime Zuckerman inhabits in Letters to Melville, her recent chapbook from Ghost Proposal.
The main concern in Letters to Melville is the act of searching. Through a series of short letter poems to Herman Melville, Zuckerman grapples with the present while summoning and speaking to the past, sometimes longingly: “I live here in the gap of this particular moment, envy you your pastness.” There are moments when the speaker seems to be searching for Melville himself: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, I will look for you to the last syllable.” Other poems invoke a larger sense of searching, appealing to Melville’s own expansive quest: “You hunted something immense and substantial. Not many of us have had our hands bloodied by the insides of something bigger than ourselves. Not many of us know how to find it in this vast expanse.”
Reading Zuckerman’s chapbook, an intimacy arises. There is the sense of a connection building throughout the collection between the speaker and Melville; what could be read as a casual interest at first transforms, by the end, into something very much like love. Zuckerman manages to sustain emotion while exploring questions heavy with the weight of eternity, shifting between diary-like musings about the speaker’s day and direct addresses to Melville. Throughout the chapbook we see the speaker reading: Melville, of course, is on the table, but there are also appearances by Homer, Shakespeare, and Charles Darwin. There is a sense of a larger dialogue happening, across time and between an infinite number of thinkers. Yet Zuckerman handles this invisible weight with care. Her prose blocks throughout the collection begin to feel like waves in the sea Melville was so obsessed with; they swirl and froth, layering dreams and memory, fact and fantasy. In one poem, the speaker muses over Melville’s old collection of Shakespeare at Houghton Library. In another, they suggest a make-out session in a state park. And in yet another, the speaker details a seven-foot-long black coffin they found washed up in a beach before ending the tale in defeat: “I can’t come up with a story better than yours.”
Through all of this, Zuckerman comes back, again and again, to the act of searching. Read in this light, there is a sense of something gained by the last lines—a concise moment of optimism, of relieved discovery: “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. // Open the door. There. Air.”