By Amy Saul-Zerby
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2018
116 pages, $15.95
Reviewed by Naomi Kimbell
Martin Buber, the Jewish mystic, talks about the relationship between “I” and “Thou,” combining the words into something he calls the one primary word, “I-Thou,” the emphasis being on the relationship. Throughout my reading of Amy Saul-Zerby’s new collection Deep Camouflage, published by Civil Coping Mechanisms, I couldn’t help but think of Buber and the sacredness of relation, and though I formed my own relationship bond with these poems, what became clear was the most painful aspect of Saul-Zerby’s book: the absence of relationship between herself and the one she loves. Her “thou-ness” is ignored. She is merely an object in bondage to the other.
Deep Camouflage is the speaker’s relationship to subjects and objects: in relationships, in her home, in the world at large. She explores self-knowledge as a response to the external, as if the self cannot exist without some sort of interaction or opposition; her existence is nullified without people and things to push against—to be forgotten is to be dead. In “i will haunt my own house” she writes, “never be an empty can of soup.” But what, then? What should we be?
Saul-Zerby posits an answer: relationships define us, and we should matter. We must matter to someone. For those of us who have been caught in lopsided relationships, mattering to the one we love is the thing we want most but can never have.
After my own mother died, my dad remarried quickly and moved away. When I was helping him pack, he handed me all the photographs from his fridge, pictures of me and my daughter, his granddaughter. I asked him why he didn’t want them. He said, “What am I supposed to do with them?” I learned then that it’s possible for love to become unrequited, even after a lifetime of relationship. Saul-Zerby captures this heartbreak. From “not myself today or ever”:
we are none of us unforgettable
as hard as we wish to be
we were born dragons but
we don’t remember
how could we have ever
believed in ourselves?
But then we enter yet more pain when we realize that not only is she rejected, this rejection disassembles her. She comes right up to the face of oblivion, but she learns to withstand it. In “sometimes but not always,” she writes:
you can’t tell anything
to a girl who knows that sometimes
‘there will be no one to water my plants’
is enough reason to stay alive.
Like any good story, Deep Camouflage isn’t static. There are turns. Saul-Zerby doesn’t stick with despair but struggles to overcome it. She’s an imperfect hero, humorous, self-deprecating, sometimes a little mean, as in “fine”: “i am willing / to be petty if it means / that you will have / to think abt what you’ve done.”
And somewhere here we see the possibility of existence for its own sake, rather than for and by another. The possibility is a glimmer, but enough to give us hope that things might change—or could change—even if it’s just for a moment, or even if they never do. From “you don’t have to, but you probably fucking would”:
i’m talking to myself through the lens of a normal person
& I don’t like it but I’m trying to learn
i’m talking to you through the differences in the way our
& enjoying being alive doesn’t come naturally to me
but i’m trying to be better in that regard.
After my dad moved away, I told him how much my daughter missed him and that she wanted to spend time with him when he and his new wife came back to town to see their friends. He said my daughter had overemphasized the importance of their relationship. I’ve had to learn time and again how mistaken I am to believe love is constant, true, and unconditional. When I was a young girl, I dreamed I could fly, but learned quickly to keep my feet on the ground and my eyes as well. The lesson repeats itself.
It isn’t often that I put some of my own story into a review, but I felt as if these poems were in conversation with me. Deep Camouflage took me to places I don’t like to think about, but the memories of which have made me who I am. I am as much rejection as I am acceptance, possibly more so. Saul-Zerby’s poems, through their relational invitation, caused me to examine myself, and in that way, her words are like the mirror in her “fractured fairytales,” showing me not truth but what is.