John Singer Sargent, 'The Rialto, Venice,' 1911 (Philadelphia Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

This impressive volume is Jakob Ziguras’s third poetry collection. Ziguras, who was born in Poland, moved to Australia at the age of seven. The biographical note on the cover tells us that he is “a poet, a translator and a lapsed philosopher.”

Venetian Mirrors has three sections: “Part One,” which has fifty poems; “Part Two,” which has a hundred; and “Sanatorium: 1/3 Rose Street,” which has a further dozen poems. There is a foreword by David Bentley Hart who, though he declares himself “hostile to the practice of joining long disquisitions in prose to books of poetry,” provides the reader with a laudatory and informative entry to the work.

The book is an ambitious sequence of poems set in Venice. What immediately strikes the reader as unique is that all but the last poem of “Part Two” and the final twelve poems have two versions, the one facing the other on opposite pages. The version on the left-hand page has four rhyming quatrains, while the version on the right-hand page is a quasi-surreal prose poem. The two iterations of the same poem across from each other may have significance on many different levels.

This device emphasizes the mirror motif signaled in the title and running through the entire collection. It suggests how so much of Venice is reflected in its canal waters: “Water rats / through paddle the mirror upside down or trailing their nets to catch propitious stars— / into a mirror barnacles encrust”; or again, “this morning in a mirrored ferry stop.” 

At a deeper level the juxtaposition of formal quatrains and almost randomly constructed impressionistic prose variants would seem to represent the poet’s own philosophical preoccupations. The foreword tells us that “there is a definite Platonic logic to all of the book’s recurring motifs and conceits.” This Platonic note—a concern with how, being human and mundane, we fall short of the ideal—is sounded in stanzas such as:

Dry breath of summer. Brittle hearts and dry
kindling of kinship, gathered on the plane
of immanence, find they cannot contain
the blaze of life that burns in drawing nigh… 

The foreword also underlines Zigura’s interest in sophiology, which is highlighted again by the book’s initial epigraph from Sergius Bulgakov, one of the major formulators of sophiology. (The publisher of this collection, Angelico Press, also publishes Bulgakov’s books in English translation.) So we can think of the carefully constructed quatrains as the ideal crafted expression of this miscellany of Venetian scenes. And we can interpret the jumbled prose combinations as depicting the more confused, haphazard nature of actual life.

It needs to be said that sophiology is very much a Christian Platonism, and this is signaled right from the opening poem, “Lazarus,” which speaks of beauty as an abstract ideal and, in the same quatrain, of Christ:

For beauty waits, having once wiped his feet
with flowing hair, and grieving stands outside;
for beauty speaks the stench of him who died,
anointing with the fragrance of defeat.

The final line of this stanza offers us a foretaste of the poet’s talent for striking tropes and encapsulating phrases. Images in lines such as “like harpsichordists playing with their feet,” “we watch the fledgling dead arrive by hearse,” “mere pillow talk in vanished dialects,” “dawn’s crisp attention melts like floated ice,” or “a great star playing to an empty hall” surprise the reader over and over again.

For all the classical tone of the left-hand pages, their formality and elegance merge with the contemporary. In the poem “The Vast Abandon,” we see this blend in a couplet: “The middling paste paintings seem to float / like icons clicked and dragged across a screen.” In a remarkable and biting description of Venice, we get this blending of the image of a conveyor belt with what I take to be tourists:

The peristalsis that processes take:
along the glittering conveyor belt,
our casings stuffed with all we’ve seen and felt,
we shamble through time’s shambles, with distaste…

 As the poems move from Venetian scene to scene, catching the temper and shifting moods of the city, the past and present mix and match. “The bellows of the past” can summon up figures associated with Venice. The poem “Distinguished Graves” mentions the artists Stravinsky, Pound, and Brodsky, all of whom are buried in Venice:

The bora strums Stravinsky’s empty staves;
the brittle ideogram of E. P.’s bones 
rattles, as Brodsky rhythmically intones,
and time is lavished on distinguished graves.

Many more figures, most of them with a connection to Venice, make their appearance—among them Thomas Mann, Lord Byron, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gaspara Stampa, Giacomo Casanova, Marco Polo, Madame Blavatsky. Even Elvis (Presley) shows up living in Vicenza.

In this collection, the form of the quatrain provides the constraint necessary to generate just such “serendipitous” effects.

In an interview with Carolyn Kuebler in the New England Review, Ziguras describes Venetian Mirrors as “a poeticportrait of the city as a process in time…that blends together historical events and actors with myths and fictional characters.” He continues, 

The city is not a mere pretext, the book can also be seen as a series of poetic meditations on broader issues of a philosophical character: for instance, the nature of poetry and its relation with the discourses of religion and philosophy, the nature of representation and the relation between original and copy, and so on.

Among the other themes of this book, Ziguras mentions “sumptuary laws and dress codes, the history and significance of masking and carnival, Venetian waste-disposal practices, the Biennale, Venice during the Fascist regime, the plight of refugees in Venice and their role in the underground economy.”

Ziguras is a superb craftsman. I think his skill and dexterity are best understood in light of his remark, from the same interview, about the challenges of translating more formal Polish poetry into English: “Both when writing and translating, I sometimes find such constraints conducive to the discovery of serendipitous solutions.”

In this collection, the form of the quatrain provides the constraint necessary to generate just such “serendipitous” effects. The quatrains have a constant meter: five iambs to a line. The rhyme scheme is also regular, with the pattern a-b-b-a. For the most part, Ziguras uses perfect end rhymes, but there are also the occasional slant rhymes, such as daguerreotype/sleep, flat/debt, cloth/path, and, more rarely, looser rhymes such grief/teeth, façade/bard, lingerie/fray. Interestingly, the intrusive r, which is common in Received Pronunciation in a word like Formosa (pronounced as Formosar), is used to create perfect rhymes such as formosa/greengrocer, meter/Sulameta, sooner/Sullaluna.

The prose versions opposite the quatrains are an entirely different matter. We know from the foreword that Ziguras “produced a good deal of this arrangement by hand, even in many cases (in good William Burroughs fashion) cutting the original poems into pieces and then assembling them in new configurations on a table.” This is almost like the method one uses to make “magnetic poetry” on the door of a fridge. It is worth noticing that these right-hand versions seem for the most part to begin with an engaging and puzzling sentence, for example: “Replace yourself—the narrow variant streets declaim on every corner, that sluggish fog dialect—with words that survive you, and recall who you will be in the One of Endless Names” or “Here a former act repents rot; the bare idol-like part, a pilgrim mannequin, trailing veils of neon silk and garish veins along a tenebrous canal.” Amusingly, in his determination to include all words from the four quatrains, Ziguras allows himself the freedom of treating a word almost like a crossword anagram. The two words “album amicorum in the quatrains with that title show up as “columbarium” in the parallel prose variant.

All of this makes for challenging reading. Where the poems use quotations in italics, the reader can find their source in the book’s endnotes. Not surprisingly, even in the more accessible quatrains the “serendipitous solutions” can sometimes achieve fascinating disjunctions:

The awning automatically retracts
at midnight and the broken chairs are led
back to their stable. Homeless echoes bed
down under blankets of the latest facts.

To some extent, poetry always wakens language out of its coherent everydayness, particularly by eschewing dead metaphors and startling us with new images. These terse quatrains are reminiscent of the “pylon poets” W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice in their use of such deliberate juxtapositions and contrasting imagery. A classic example is this couplet from MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”: “It’s no go the Yogi-Man, it’s no go Blavatsky, / All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.”

This is a bold and demanding suite of poems by a consummate wordsmith. Its broad spectrum of Venetian scenes, shading into each other through time, both challenges and intrigues: “Hard light, hard shadow. Where their borders meet / the whole prismatic chaos is resolved / into a chart of colours, named and selved.” 

Venetian Mirrors
Jakob Ziguras
Angelico Press
$22.95 | 342 pp.

Micheal O’Siadhail is a poet. His works include The Five QuintetsCollected PoemsOne Crimson Thread and Testament. His latest collection from Baylor University Press is Desire.

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Published in the July/August 2024 issue: View Contents
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