Griffin finalist aspires to the condition of music: Jan Zwicky's Forge

Forge is a book of extraordinarily beautiful poems. The book appears suspended—even the print floating just off the page. Reading it or even thinking about it, I have a strong sense of being physically slowed down, of holding my breath. It is not only Zwicky’s subject matter and imagery, but her exact and meticulous poetics. I want to find out just what she is doing; whatever it is, it works.

Zwicky makes liberal use of the negative. Not just no, not, nothing, but also words that negate themselves—unbiddable, unnamed, homeless. Or images described by what they aren’t, or presented and then erased. There is a respected tradition here: blinded Gloucester led to the nonexistent cliff; The Waste Land’s water given and then taken away. Zwicky’s reader is halted by images both present and denied. The sensation is physical, and on the neurological level powerfully disturbing:

If there were a sword, a block, you think

you’d lay your head along that coolness,

close your eyes. But no. (“Schumann: Fantaisie, Op. 17”)

Zwicky’s images linger, with all their associations. Negation cannot destroy them, and what occurs is a kind of suspension. The sensation is physical, and disturbing. Another device is the question, unanswered. “Who can name the absence…?” (“Music and Silence: Seven Variations”). Again the reader is left hanging. There are choices, retreats. In the title poem every line begins with “if”—the poet will not commit herself, the grammar is incomplete, verbs are rare or appear in the subjunctive. Zwicky follows up with possessives, phrases written down like sentences, the periods nailing them. Her restrained vocabulary whispers: absence, silence, “a ceaseless self-erasure” (“Small Song on Surrender”).

Even in her poetry Zwicky is a musician, with an intelligent and impeccable ear, and many poems are the oblique and subtle companions to chosen pieces of music. “I’m listening” (“Practising Bach”) she writes, and does, with a fine-tuned intensity. “Lyric poets,” she writes in “Bourrée,” are always “forcing speech to aspire to the condition of music.” Her own poetry is more rarefied, and can embrace “a kind of music / just outside our hearing, the proportion / and the resonance of things”; these are universal resonances, what she calls “unrung ringing” (“Practising Bach”). She seems almost able to listen to light: “a density / of some kind, like a pitch / that’s just outside the range / of hearing” (“When You Look Up”). Zwicky’s minimalist imagery is chosen from nature—the motion of air and light, and their effect on natural things like trees and grass and the sea—and her own skin.

Given this kind of attention, touch is almost unbearable, whether the touch of love or of the world. Into this breathless, cautious poetry, the epiphanies come with a special punch. In a book of horizontal imagery, they are suddenly and fiercely vertical: “the flame inside you stood straight up” (“Music and Silence: Seven Variations”). Forge gives substance to the insubstantial, and to the substantial, transcendence. Zwicky tells us her intention: “You are only trying to say / what you see in the world” (“Night Music”). Through her craft, this is what she has done.


Heather Spears is a poet, novellist and artist. novels. Her work has won numerous prizes, including the Governor General’s and the Pat Lowther awards.

Visit Arc this May for more Griffin coverage. Next week: A good year for Phil Hall.

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