Published March 21, 2008
Reviewed November 23, 2009
Some poets take language out for a long, leisurely lunch and a stroll. Danielle Pafunda drags language out of bed in the middle of the night and takes it on a desperate mission through the war-torn house of the body.
Mirrors explode and shattered glass rains down on the mostly female narrator of Pafunda’s book, “My Zorba,” as she fights with an imaginary, mostly male character named Zorba. “I could only think in small pieces!/I could not speak in first person! The copper wire/strung!/From my armpit, a personality exam, a pelvic diatribe” (In the Museum of Your Two Halves). Confusion, urgency, shape-shifting, and struggle maims every poem in “My Zorba,” producing language that is fragmented and mysterious, that jolts and halts like an ancient amusement park ride. It is as terrifying and difficult as it is beautiful; a drunk horror story covered in glitter.
This may not be true for every reader, but I couldn’t even start the book without thinking of Nikos Kazantzakis’ famous novel “Zorba the Greek.” In “Zorba the Greek,” the male character, Zorba, mysteriously appears and thrusts himself into the life of a young male character who, like Pafunda’s narrator, remains nameless. Kazantzakis’ Zorba teaches the writer how to be a man and how to enjoy the zest of life – a “zest” that primarily consists of bedding several women, who Zorba insists are all “something different, boss … something different. She’s not human!” A widower in Kazantzaki’s novel, who is thrust sexually by Zorba upon the narrator, is even stoned to death because of Zorba’s actions. However, it seems a trivial tragedy, necessary even, for the narrator to gain a full sense of his “manhood.”
In both Pafuda’s and Kazantzaki’s work, the Zorbas happily upstage the narrators. They can’t help themselves. They persistently impose themselves onto the narrators, determined to control his and her actions. And yet, while Kazantzaki’s work yields direction and “epiphany,” Pafunda destroys, cuts, and confuses in a search for “femininity.” If indeed Pafunda is making a reference to the bestseller, she’s created a dark lens to view it through.
She pulls the lens wider, too, focusing her sights on long-documented story of the male “rite of passage.” What has long been seen as a kind of eye clearing journey turns out to be a drug-induced stupor for the female in “My Zorba,” with female narrator fighting to regain authority over her own consciousness and reality. “I was so KO’d, so tanked, so regal, furtive, dormant, a champ./I was so full of vitamin mash and protein” (Building a Nest, the A-Z). Pafunda turns the “strong” and “powerful” journey of gender discovery on its head and twists its neck into a series of awe-inspiring, but obviously painful positions.
Despite all of these comparisons I’ve just made, I have to emphasize briefly that knowledge of “Zorba the Greek” is not necessary in any regard to getting something out of “My Zorba.” The poetry is first and foremost about sexuality: the rush, the horror, and the confusion it manifests in any young person, male or female.
As children often do, the narrator created Zorba when she was young as a source of protection against her own inexperience and insecurity. “He drew a drawbridge, she drew a gangplank He an awning/she an armory” (My Sea Legs). That protection comes with a price as Zorba emphasizes the domineering, hierarchal aspects of a parent figure, rather than the more equal qualities of a friendship. The narrator addresses Zorba as “My little mommydaddy” (Nee Providential) but it’s apparent that Zorba is no “nurturing” figure. In fact, after reading all the poems the book’s harmless opening quote from a Margaret Wise Brown children’s book is unbelievably unsettling:
“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”
It’s as if Zorba is already trying to get the first word in, even before the narrator begins speaking her verse. Zorba looks directly at the reader and says, “She will never escape me.”
There are times, in poems throughout the book, that the narrator aggressively fights back. “Zorba asked me to read their cards…I would not read the card for frontage/I would not read the card for Christmas…Nor bind/her breasts with bandages, iodine” (Tribune). It seems, as the character senses the natural progressive nature of her individuality, that she should make attempts to protect and take control of her sexuality, “I protected my creature with a complicated rigging, I took twofold/the barb and twofold the batting…For shortage. I shorted the sheets/of the privates” (In the Iron Cassion).
And despite all of Zorba’s authoritative, male posturing, mostly articulated through words, Zorba’s gestures and descriptions in the verse sometimes undermines what she/he she claims to be. “She put pantyhose over her athletic shorts. And a skirt/over that” (A Quarter-Hour of Recess). Pafunda may be hinting that Zorba’s power is superficial, a power that lean heavily on the pills, sex force and brainwashing speeches fed to the narrator, rather than any real truth.
Perhaps these imaginary characters are creatures we battle in real life, as well. Maybe Pafunda suggests in these poems, with all the gender switching and the heavy struggle associated with “instructing” a young person about gender, that young men and women share more androgynous, indecipherable qualities between each other, contrary to what the assorted dominant, parent figures in their lives may tell them.
The book ends with a poem filled with one of most common images associated with femininity: birth. “Zorba asks me to deliver this speech. A birthing…I took extra care/in applying my makeup, affixing an eyelash…My eyes were ruddy with grief…I haven’t a coffee spoon, marmalade, a clue” (Sweets). The character ends the book by performing what is considered to be the greatest achievement of the female gender. We give birth to new life. But, in this instance, can we see “birth” as something new, or as an imposing act meant to perpetuate a violent cycle.
I don’t think, though, that “My Zorba” is just for women. Pafunda is an effortless daredevil when it comes to imagery and an eccentric butcher of the English language (if the cover art didn’t already hint at that) She has a chilling gift for story-telling and costumes that makes puts you right in the middle of a coked-out dance floor. Anyone will have a fabulous time trying to keep up with her.