Review of Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power

by Miriam Kotzin

Robert Zaller. Speaking to Power. (Philadelphia PA: The Moonstone Press, 2015).  77pp.

Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power is an impressive collection of superb poetry that evinces the author’s wide-ranging knowledge and indicates a passion for justice.  Zaller’s erudition joins his imagination in writing poems that are responses to literature and philosophy:  not fan fiction (or fan poetry) but daring explorations, expansions.

In Speaking to Power, Herbert, Mayakovsky, Parra, Shakespeare (Hamlet, Julius Caesar), Sophocles, Goya, Giacometti, de Saussure, Voltaire, and their works are subjects for poems, as are a number of historical and Biblical figures. Zaller is a master of the dramatic poem; moreover these poems are unflinching as they confront cruelty.

This is not to say that the poems are grim—far otherwise.  “The Last Citizen” speaks as a poet  “…toiling from word to word / like a miner without a lamp, chipping away  / in my darkness at the imaginary / rockface of the world.”

The book’s opening poem, “Simple Answers,” sets the tone for what follows:  “The simple answers lie before us / with the rectitude of keys / for which all doorways have vanished.” 

This is followed by a response to the poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Herbert’s Pebble.”  Zaller’s narrator, like the narrator Herbert’s poem, holds a pebble in his hand, “the furnace of [his] palm,” an action echoed by Claudius in Zaller’s “Claudius’s Prayer,” one of a series of Hamlet poems. In the play, Claudius kneels but cannot pray; Shakespeare’s scene ends with the couplet, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  Zaller’s poem ends with a similar statement, even though the title tantalizes the reader with the possibility of the prayer’s words.  It takes a spine of steel to write something that calls upon the reader to compare a passage with Shakespeare’s. Zaller’s poem holds up to the scrutiny:

         “No thought or prayer
         can comfort like cold stone
         weighed in the palm
         of one’s hand.
         Yet stone, too, is fire-born
         and fire, as is known,
         lives the death of air
         through which thought and prayer
         likewise flow.
         So one can hold nothing then
         that has not come
         and will not go
         no more than pulse of wren
         that strains at flight
         and never goes?…”

All too often political poems are more polemics than poetry—not so these admirable poems. When they are responses to other work, their excellence invites re-reading the source and then returning to Speaking to Power. Robert Zaller’s latest collection is certain to be read with appreciation for its insight, its sensitive use of figures of speech, and its command of cultural history.