Corey Zeller - With an acute eye for specifics, Zeller unravels rupturing narratives, narratives that refuse to follow time, insisting instead on exploring every possible sideline of memory, association, and escape, narratives that explode into sheer momentum, dissolve into poetic suspensions, and pursue the limits of linguistic precision
Corey Zeller, You and Other Pieces, Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015.
There’s a village whose main inhabitant is the sound of distant gunfire. Hours float by like the shuffling of blank cards. Like an infant inside a bombed-out building playing with a bowl of oranges. Like this pier where two factory workers cast their lines from a boat. Because fishing is prayer. Is the catechism light makes with water and the bare, brown trees which surround it. Is the smokestack morning. Is waiting to see a blue curtain part in the window of a house where everyone is sleeping. Is a cook smelling his own hands after work. Too tired to eat. And with hands as worn as a cutting board. And with the scent of spices he’s never owned still lingering in his hair.
“If there was any remaining doubt that prose is the new poetry, or that prose-poetry is the new sublime, along comes Corey Zeller’s intimate, winningly melancholiac collection You and Other Pieces, which will wring your heart out, over and over and over. Allow this book to treat you to all the secrets about yourself that you would never otherwise come to know.”–Gary Lutz
“Zeller not only builds worlds but, exploring the cracks between language and reality, deftly makes them strange, absurd, surreal. You and Other Pieces offers that perfect alternation of soberness and absurdity that allows these pieces to worm their way into your head, demand your attention, and then keep on wriggling long after the book is closed.”–Brian Evenson
“Do not be fooled by the claim that this book of fiction is making, namely that this book is not a book of poetry. If I know anything about such matters of naming, what I know is this: that You and Other Pieces is a book of poems disguised as a book of fiction. Corey Zeller is a tree in wolf’s clothing, in other words, or a leaf that used to be a stone. This is the real fiction being proposed here by this book and the bigger truth behind such ambiguity of name-calling is what makes Corey Zeller the writer that he is making a name for himself in those literary circles where seeing and saying makes a world of what it is and what it is not.”–Peter Markus
“With an acute eye for specifics, Corey Zeller unravels rupturing narratives, narratives that refuse to follow time, insisting instead on exploring every possible sideline of memory, association, and escape, narratives that explode into sheer momentum, dissolve into poetic suspensions, and pursue the limits of linguistic precision—relentlessly and gorgeously. ‘I want to yell a pearly thing,’ he says. And he does.”–Cole Swensen
I’ve seen their chain mail rattling just like their teeth
You can’t use the internet when you’re dead because you are the internet. You forward yourself. You share and like your status which is void, an absence, the undersides of bridges, teething. You are frigid in your enormity. You cause ruptures, ads. You are selling the living more living. You are causing an ache that is quieter than continuum, than drinking decaf, corrosive and swallowed where you thought a river was. What was there, though, fell like a fixed fight. The ring was blood-soaked, made of blood, it spilled. Yet there was no one fighting or watching. There never was.
I was worrying about me splitting up the middle
My eyes are two brown seas. Each one is identical of the other in length and depth and brownness. Each one tries to climb into the other over the cliff of my nose. Which is to say: I cannot stop them from spilling. Which is to say: I only go places to drown them. Today, for instance, I walked into a room and everyone inside it died. I watched them float for hours. Underwater, their heads were like fireworks exploding out of their normal sized bodies. Hot flashes of color cut the dark water. They did not seem sad to leave. I am happy they’re gone.
Corey Zeller, Man Vs. Sky, YesYes Books, 2013.
"This is a book by a man who is sputtering gray zeppelin in what used to be sky, a man out of bicycle parts, who likes when trees sizzle and who knows that although there are no angels to speak of out here, the neighbors shout and call the cops for all the noise not there. This book is full of crazy, vital energy. Full of miraculous and mundane, full of coke bottles, subways, cotton swabs, wasps, sharp nipples, and voices from the great soup that Frank Stanford once tried to feed all hungry mouths of America. And, the poet who is the child, stands at the window, as night becomes morning. This too, is magic. Just pick up your feet and watch."—Ilya Kaminsky
I am going to do a few things can’t nobody follow
I am going to be a sputtering gray zeppelin in what used to be sky, the wah-wah pedal wind and everything else. I am going to show you up with congas and weird smiles, a touch without skin, skin for eyes. If you perceive a lake before you then you perceive me, my body, a wide low place of drowning. Watch: I am going to do one thing that will leave you breathless. I am going to make you perform a great act of sorrow, over and over, after me. Watch, repeat. Look at you all: tumbling down, hanging there. You didn’t know you were loose rocks shaken out of a mountain after eons and eons of waiting and try, after my seismic went. You can feel it now though, this tough, invisible tie to the air. You’ve always been floating. Just pick up your feet and watch.
And then I noticed there were no young menNo old ones either. There was no low breathing, no disturbed fuses and flophouse laughter, nothing to be said about crack pipes or tatter or fractions. Just trees: what Dante says happens to us in a certain circle. These crooked things living on their own voices, their same sounds. Bark peels from them without the wind having to help. They are terrified of themselves and their tallness. Don’t get it twisted, Dante baby. They do not cry out for having had a piece of them broken, for having bled again. They cry only because their branches sometimes reach each other out of the long dry stillness. They cry out, quivering, simply for having touched.
A dream like a plaid shirt that takes forever to fall to the floorIs still just a dream. My chest cavity is a window of plaid. I unbutton it. I am standing in the room I died in. The wall here is made of plaid, the body in the bed too. What pushes inside me is not a heart. It is a hummingbird with tartan wings, a beak as thin and sore as a child’s broken arm. It is whatever you cannot imagine the air can do, a choice between all the air in the world and none at all.
Corey Zeller’s debut collection Man vs. Sky is an extraordinary elegy and a full-blooded marvel. Written in the voice of Jeremy Quezada, a close friend who committed suicide, the book invites us into a world of simultaneous existence and a burning heart. In the opening poem, the speaker calls out to the reader—swaggering (“I am going to show you up with congas and weird smiles”) and insistent (“I am going to make you perform a great act of sorrow, over and over, after me”). Throughout the book, the poems take on added dimension as they shift in grammatical tense and mood. The effect is surprisingly joyful and mesmerizing. As the reader, we are not apart from the dead; we are in its thrall.
Instead of meditating on his loss through the filter and remove of the authorial speaker, Zeller takes on his friend’s voice and creates an afterlife where we can follow as an intimate. Thus, the emphasis is not on Zeller’s grief, but on rendering a vision of his friend through language. Yet we come to know Zeller through this collection as a poet of tremendous empathy, passion, wit, imagination, and control. His images manifest and evaporate with shattering effect, and when combined with emotional candor, the poems hurtle with accumulated power and weight.
We enter different silences as we travel with the speaker to people and presences both familiar and unfamiliar. But what is familiar and ordinary quickly becomes strange, destabilized, questioned, and subject to erasure. Even time collapses and facets so that there is a simultaneous sense of experiencing the absence of presence as a presence (“Black matter is my new job” and “The neighbors shout and call the cops for all the noise not there”). The afterlife is both an inversion and a distortion. The latter is stunningly realized in “The piano under the water looks like a shark” where the speaker re-identifies an astonishing chain of images:
. . .The thud you feel walking, talking, is a wire missing to a piano key. I pound it with my finger, hear a note no one else believes in, one only those without throats can sing. I pound it feeling my chest open. My chest a bathtub filled with toucans, uncontrollable jets of green-blue blood. This is to say: the piano under the water looks like a piano but is really a casket.The transformation of the ordinary to the alarming is dazzling and emotionally layered. As Zeller delves into this liminal state, his poetry bursts with emotional energy and conversational zing. We come to know the speaker’s personality as his tone shifts from astringency to regret to playful humor via slang (“Don’t get it twisted, Dante baby,” a call-out to the master of the afterlife poem). We move through many states of ephemerality as scenes come together and dissolve (“Everything is unnamed, most of all me”).
Zeller has created a book about loss that beats with admissions, questions, accusations, and refusals while also taking on the position of an omniscient outsider. We move from the past (“Nothing was there to watch me. The skin peeled off easier than you’d imagine.”) to the present (“Your child, too, cannot sleep”), swerving perilously between these intimate moments without context. The fragmented narrative is well-suited for the prose poem form, which works to showcase Zeller’s sharp writing and restrain its delivery. Without the line break, we lose enjambment’s disruption, white space, and dramatic pause. Due to Zeller’s careful hand, the prose poem urges us onward and we say yes: we want to follow the poem’s leaps and electric imagery and do so through the rhythm of the sentence. But we retain the poem’s relationship to white space as a passage toward an empty field, an emptiness which has become a charged silence. As we reel from each poem’s moment, we also confront the distances between the speaker and the reader, the speaker and the addressee, and the poet and his friend. Close to the end of the collection, the speaker addresses the poet and others who mourn his death and one poem ends: “My corpse has been floating. And you, my friends, have been standing above it only to hold it down.” Thus, the poems shifts inward to the poet interrogating himself by complicating the notion of what an elegy does to the person it memorializes.
How can one write about someone who has died and who has died too young? How does one write about a suicide? Zeller’s collection gives us no easy answers and no boring answers. This visionary book will shake you. Zeller is a tremendous young talent and Man vs. Sky is a richly realized collection that will reverberate in the mind and the heart long after one has closed its pages. - Shelley Wong
Corey Zeller's work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, The Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Puerto del Sol, Salt Hill, West Branch, The Literary Review, New York Tyrant, Chorus (MTV Books), among others. He currently serves as an associate editor at Mud Luscious Press and a social media wrangler for H_NGM_N BOOKS.