The young man with a mop of wind-swept hair stands solitary on a beach. His gaze seems to pierce the atmosphere, and a faint elusive smile curls on his lips. There is something inscrutable about this publicity photo, as if the figure - part Ariel, part Pan – is inviting the reader into his world at the same time that he cloaks that world in a mysterious elusiveness that forces one to probe deeper and deeper. The poetry within the pages of his new book, Chrysophylae, represents Omer Zamir’s first major published collection, a stunning debut for the twenty-six year-old Israeli-American poet. Though the volume contains only twenty-four poems, these are each so linguistically and thematically rich as to create a rare universe that balances beauty, and passion with danger and loss.
When I met Omer Zamir at a book reading of my own in Hallowell, Maine, last spring, I thought to myself, “Whatever is this clearly brilliant, gifted young writer doing in this sleepy Maine hamlet?” And, indeed, like his poetry, Zamir’s story and journey have been original.
“I came to Readfield, Maine for a two-week visit with friends,” he explains in perfect English, “and I ended up staying much longer. I chose Hallowell because it was a small, relatively quiet town that still had some action going on.” And Zamir used the year to live on his own, mine his inner creative life, and produce Chrysophylae. “I had been dabbling in poetry since I was twenty-one, and had self-published two books, but only recently did I feel my poems were really representative. So I consider this my first real book.”
Zamir was born in Israel and has lived most of his life in the small rural town of Gegera. His Israeli father is a geneticist and his American mother is a doctor, and the family took a number of sabbaticals to New York State, where the parents taught and worked at Cornell University. “I came to the States when I was two, seven, thirteen, and seventeen, and that is how I polished my English. Though I feel my roots are in Israel and I intend to continue to live there, linguistically, I am most at home in English, which I grew up speaking at home.”
Zamir began his education in Israel at an open school “which worked pretty well for me in terms of my learning style. High school, however, was rather rigid, and I found that environment unappealing and unconducive to my way of learning. So I decided to continue my studies on my own.” Like so many self-taught literary writers of previous centuries, Zamir’s teachers were books and great literature. “When I was nineteen, I moved up north to Shazey-Zion to live with my grandparents, and it was there that I discovered books. My grandfather kept a large library, and I immersed myself in history, biography, literature, and especially poetry. Walt Whitman became one of my earliest influences. He opened my eyes to a whole other world. I love his freedom, his boundlessness. He goes deep into the bones and opens things up.”
Zamir continued to read – to absorb all he could about poetry – “I was like a sponge soaking up everything.” He cites other favorites as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, and Virginia Wolfe. The echoes of those masters are heard in his verse in the way he turns a phrase or plays with rhythm or smiths words. Of Dickinson, he says, he loves how she captures so precisely and economically “a whole spectrum of human experience,” while he also feels drawn to the unbridled stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry of Joyce or Wolfe.
“I like experimenting in different styles,” he concedes. “When I sit down to write, the words come out the way they want to. I never give it any conscious thought.” If there are cadences or structures reminiscent of other poets, it is as if Zamir is channeling them subconsciously, summoning hidden voices tucked away in his creative psyche.
And while the poetic mechanics are sometimes influenced by past writers, Zamir’s images and his themes are uniquely personal. He admits that “in one sense or another all my writing springs from real life or from experiences I have imagined intensely, but then on the other hand I don’t want to say concretely that it is autobiographical. I want to leave that up in the air,” he says when asked to describe the sources of his themes.
Chrysophylae is a widely variegated collection that embraces a considerable range of human emotion and experience. There are poems about loss, suicide, insanity as well as poems celebrating the human connection to the natural world and embracing passion, love, and life-affirming moments. Zamir says he wrote the entire twenty-four poems very quickly during the time he was living in Hallowell. “Words just land on me. I was living alone and sometimes on your own, experiences seem amplified. Some of the feelings of sadness and loss I had were so strong that I could only channel them into words. Wasn’t it May Sarton,” he asks, “who said solitude exposes a nerve?”
Like any fine poet, Zamir smiths his own series of indelible images. Among his most striking are elemental ones like air, fire and water – the sea, the rain, the engulfing depths – or figures pulsating with energy like his tigers. He says he finds something “very pure in the energy of a predator like the tiger” and something very purifying in the intensity of the tameless ocean.” Colors and sounds also figure strongly in Zamir’s work. There are relentless echoes, haunting whispers, and maddening silences; there is blood and the sparkle of silver. Similarly with Zamir’s use of rhythm, rhyme, and aural effects, there are numerous surprises. There are breathless sequences and jarring contrasts, lilting, lyrical constructs and razor sharp, edgy ones. There is a dizzying kind of exuberance that seduces the reader even in the saddest of poems.
The conversation turns to some of Zamir’s own favorites in the collection. He immediately chooses the title poem “Chrysophylae,” which means in Greek “golden gate.” He talks about how the verses came to him as he was standing on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. “I suddenly became very sad thinking about how so many people go there and just let go.” The poem’s protagonist is eerily described as
Young, tall slender;
Dancing like fire
And then with a deliberate Christ-like gesture, leaps from the span:
And back first,
With resolute thirst,
He leans into air.
It is the final image of “leaning into air,” of crossing that fine line between existence and non-existence with the ease of flight that makes the poem so shattering.
Similarly, “Matthew” evokes another “letting go,” this time by a mother who can no longer carry her burden of grief. “I wrote the entire poem while I was at the Maine State Library,” Zamir recalls. I took something from Virginia Wolfe. I saw the image of waves and thought of this mother who sees her son going down in the surf and she cannot reach him. That image of his drowning goes with her throughout her entire life, and eventually she cannot take it anymore. She goes to the sea and walks in [to her own death.] I don’t know why I chose that name. It just came to me, and I repeat it over an over in the poem like a haunting refrain.” The poem is told by Matthew’s sister who knows she can never replace her dead brother in her mother’s broken heart.
I was never her son, always you, Matthew
My face her waning solace, a lancing remembrance of you
The grief, the image of the drowning, the remembrance of her son in his sister all drive the poor woman to madness, and she finally eludes her protectors and
She slipped through each grip, flung open the door, and followed you.
In “Rooms” traumatic past memories also create an imprisoning hell for the subjects. Like “Matthew” whose repeated name is a siren call to death, this poem begins with subtle sounds:
Those echoes do not die, do not die, do not die
They are the echoes of what Zamir calls “experiences that stick to people forever to the point where they can no longer control them or no longer function. [In the poem] there is the soldier who always hears the cries of his buddies who died or the woman who cannot bring herself to believe her husband has died. Loss takes over in such an extreme, life-altering way.”
And so these ghosts supplant reality replacing fact with denial:
No widow, she’s just waiting for him to return the call
And when they showed her pictures of the plane,
There was no belief
In contrast to the engulfing sadness of these poems, Zamir talks about the exuberance and joy in some of his other pieces. “Zeroing In” is a linguistic tour de force that eloquently transforms the pure kinetic energy of a tiger stalking its prey into a pulsating poetic rhythm that has all the intensity of a Blakean vision:
Young and prowling through a god-old forest,
Paw prints smell of its last catch…….
Zeroing in, zeroing in
Hidden, all seeing,
Unblinking, heart steadily beating,
Zeroing in, zeroing in.
And then there is “Yeah” which is as boisterously joyous a poem as one can imagine – a paean to love and homoerotic passion – an expression of what Zamir calls “so entirely sexual, so the free embracing of another person that takes place completely in the moment.” The lover chants orgasmically:
Discover me like Columbus
Conquer me and be Alexander
Divine my depths like a philosopher
Diving after truth’s glimmer.
It is this visceral sense of plunging deep into the fabric of experience and emotion that makes Omer Zamir’s work so powerful. It is a shared experience between poet and reader. Zamir describes the feeling as “ if you are writing something that goes deep into your bones. Poetry goes way into a person’s being. It puts into words something that the poet feels and
when readers realize this is exactly what they too are feeling, they realize they are not alone.”
Chrysophylae is published by Deerbrook Editions, Cumberland, ME. ISBN 978-0-9975051-7-751300. Zamir is currently working on a new collection of poems called I Fall for My Name.