4 out of 4 stars
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Katya Zinn's human verses is a collection of 14 poems (15 if one includes the dedicatory ‘For Will’) divided into 3 sections. It is a challenging set of poems, both stylistically and thematically. The writing is in the form of free verse and prose. One poem is written up like a science report with headings and bullet points. Words are irregularly spaced, and there is a strikethrough on one line. Poem titles are mostly written in lowercase letters.
The themes are dark. The issues of sexual assault, family discord, and suicide attempts sit behind the poems like a watermark. ‘Anniversary syndrome’ and ‘after the third attempt’ cover traumatic events in the poet’s life. Some of the poems are accusatory and filled with rage; see, for example, ‘open letter to the r*pist who writes about Me’Too’ (sic) in which she expresses the frustration of a woman who tells her story and is not believed. This fear of not being believed is also touched on in ‘the creature in your place.’ Broader themes explored in the poems include the nature of reality and the possibility that our universe is only one of many. Such thoughts are inspired, perhaps, by the writer’s sense of alienation from the world around her.
There is something very engaging about Katya Zinn’s writing. Perhaps it is the way that she chronicles her struggles with a kind of ironic detachment, almost more like an interested observer rather than a participant. Even as she recalls traumatic events, she has an eye for the bizarre: ‘seasonal triggers, my therapist calls this / ptsd’s never sounded so festive.’ (page 4) In the same laconic style, she compares loving someone you shouldn’t to living next door to the leader of a death cult: ‘theoretically dangerous but you always walk away with a story.’ (page 5) Her detachment, she hints, is due to her emotional range being unlike that of other people: ‘I have emotion the way wax-paper left too long in the rain eventually grows soggy.’ (page 12)
I liked, too, the spirit of resistance and defiance that rise up from these poems. Her very survival, the poet believes, is a triumph in itself: ‘but isn’t that / a kind of victory? / to stare down all that once tried to destroy you / & say look what I have built on rubble.’ (page 25) While she wonders at the ability of other people to feel content or happy, she takes comfort in the fact that she can, at least, experience moments of happiness: ‘I believe in moments. And that’s enough for now.’ (page 14)
While there isn’t anything I disliked about this collection, some of the poems may make readers uncomfortable. In ‘dermatillomania’, for example, the writer links her sexual abuse with the habit she has developed of picking at the skin on her hands. Noting that the human epidermis regenerates itself every seven years, she writes of trying to erase the memory of her abuser by attacking her own hands: ‘Someday, I’ll be made of skin/ his hands have never touched.’ (page 10)
I am delighted to give this book 4 out of 4 stars. The book has been professionally edited; I noticed only one small typo. There are a few examples of strong language. Those, together with the themes of the poems, make this collection unsuitable for children. I recommend it to readers who enjoy poetry but who aren’t frightened off by untraditional forms or dark themes.
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