Zara Raab’s collection centers around place and people, the Eel of the title a river in California where generations of Raab’s family settled. Raab lets the reader know early on that place will serve as an important theme throughout the collection, as each of the three section titles relate to place: “A Land of Wonders,” “Coming to Branscomb,” and “Hills above the Eel.” The collection shows a place changing, moving from a place that is not even a town, where a family’s house can serve as the one-room schoolhouse, to a contemporary city, though still small, with contemporary troubles.
In the first section, the reader sees “Yellow Fields” and “Winter Cord,” the hardships of the frontier country, but the beauty of the land is also clearly present. By the end of the collection, though, that landscape has changed. There are still seemingly bucolic pleasures, such as “fields of tall grass and firs / and spotted milk cows taking hold / by rocky outcrops, and foxholes,” but the line preceding these three notes that “For kids like her, there’s not much here.” Now, we see this scene in “Visiting the County Jail,” a far cry from “Yellow Fields” set a century or so before, a poem that ends:
The double lanes are where peahens
roost on guardrails; the smooth tarmac
stripes ahead, Indian gold on black.
The Lexus purr by, in no time
passing on, swilling the fields of grain.
This is not the Eden that has been portrayed earlier in the collection, a motif that recurs throughout the collection, as do snakes, not surprisingly.
While the place changes, though, the people do not change all that much. People struggle against whatever hardships they encounter, some succeeding, some not, but none to a great extent. As we move through the generations, we see sons and daughters repeating the sins of their parents, not learning much from those who have come before. Even the successes seem limited by their repetition. In fact, Raab begins the final section of the book with “The father,” which ends:
Our forms, slow to change, repeat:
Cupid, clown, bully, deadbeat,
paragon, puck, prince, pauper,
madman, maid, thief, marauder,
featherbrain, hero, fisherman, father.
This collection struggles under the weight of this narrative, however, as the story seems to drive the poems, especially early on. While this approach does lead Raab to some prose poems, which are interesting, it also leads to some prose-like poems, which weaken the collection. In the first section, for example, poems like “Fishing the Eel among the Athapaskans,” “Belle and Mary,” and “Infidels of Light” seem designed to provide narrative information more than poetic language. “Belle and Mary,” a prose poem, begins: “Bachelors need wives in order to thrive, and Alonzo was no exception. A wife was coming to him; even as he was heading west, she was making her way there by another route, one of two sisters sailing from Augusta, Maine on a 5,000-mile voyage to California a few years after the Civil War.” While prose poems have more latitude, this poem and others like it do not bring the tropes of poetry to bear on the narrative.
Another problem with the narrative is that it is often unclear. There are multiple generations, and they are often not clearly defined, causing the reader to look back at previous poems simply to understand who is related to whom. In other poems, such as “Going to Branscomb,” Trionesta,” and “Branscomb Road,” it is unclear who the speaker or subject of the poem is, causing those poems to lose their connection to the overall narrative.
Oddly enough, the strongest poems are those that are not directly connected to the narrative. First, in “Billy Gawain,” an anonymous “we” find a dead man hanging in the woods and bury him with their own, as “He had no kin.” In this poem, especially in the first stanza, Raab describes the scene as poetically as she does almost any in the collection:
his black boots
almost scraping on the ground, bowing
down a branch half-cleft from the oak’s crown.
His hands seemed to take back what he’d done,
they at least had wanted life, clawing,
frantic to unknot the fraying jute,
his thick, blackened nails cut and bloodied.
Here is a vividly rendered scene that helps the reader see and feel what the narrator of the poem has discovered. The voice is pitch perfect, and the tone hits the right notes.
In “San Francisco Earthquake,” the best poem in the collection, Raab surprises the reader with unexpected images that convey the chaos of the earthquake, a description heightened by her choice of the asylum as her setting. In the middle of the poem, Raab shows what happens when the earthquake strikes:
and a woman ran out, carrying her baby
like a trussed chicken, and Caruso stood
at the open window, at the opera before him
as he sang out, “La fanta mi salva
l’immondo ritrova” to those standing half
nude in sleep’s dance by the fallen porticoes—”
She ends the poem simply, the effects of the earthquake already clearly laid out in the preceding lines, by writing, “Leaves flapped and whirled, blossoms powdered / and lathered our missing faces.” The narrative that holds the collection together is missing in this poem, so she relies on the power of language, and it does its job well here.
If one can read the poems in Swimming the Eel apart from the narrative, the book is much more effective, as the importance does not center on who certain individuals are, but what the poem in and of itself says at that moment. When Raab focuses on that question, her poems become much stronger.