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Monday, November 30, 2009

Richard Froude's _ The History of Zero _, reviewed by Sarah Suzor

The History of Zero
Richard Froude
Candle-Aria Press, 2008

Reviewed by Sarah Suzor

The History of Zero, by Richard Froude (available as a limited-edition book from Candle-Aria Press) reads as one continuous glimpse into the process of documentation. Froude’s Zero is archived in first-person from aeroplane windows, flatbed trucks, and causeways—all forms of transportation visualized to the “I” as “expression[s] of distance (I).” Through a series of prose poems the narrator catalogs, constructs (and then deconstructs) the origins of things and ideas, such as swimming pools, geography, urban planning, and even religion.

The desperate epistolary tone of Zero’s opening poems immediately draws the reader into the book’s false vulnerability: “There are stories I haven’t told you. And I must tell you these stories because you understand (XI).” But what exactly is the history of Zero, the history Froude’s title would signify he is explaining? This is where things get interesting:
But a memoir of Zero, whose name is Celandine. (IV)
Beretta whose name is Celandine. Whose nature is Zero. Beretta who is the longest river in the world. (XIV)
Design is a doctor. Zero is Montana. Commerce is the most beautiful suburb in Europe. Irvine, California is a hospital on the banks of the longest river in the world. (XVI)
Then, as if to provide clarification, Froude writes:
Q: If all this is true, then I am a passenger on an aeroplane somewhere above Kentucky. Where am I going?

A: Montana. No…. (XVII)
Froude’s convoluted explanations are seemingly stream of conscious observations of stimuli assembled to equal the “story” of his character (“And smiles, I have learnt, were born in Irvine, California (XV).” “It occurs that perhaps I am Montana (XVII).”). However, Froude carefully, so carefully it reads as careless, leads his audience to no conclusions about what all these observations definitively mean.

Froude’s history of Zero is continually altered or re-written. In “A parade of confessions” the narrator announces, “The shortest distance between two people is not a smile. It is Zero (XX).” Ten poems later the “I” alters this previous confession and Zero becomes a large land mass, “I have followed you through the aeroplane windows. To the spaces occupied by Zero (XXX).”

Most importantly the narrator’s observations describe what Froude sets off as a noun, Design, which is used in some instances as an avenue to combat Zero (solitude). Froude writes,
Where there is nothing, we must put something.
From aeroplane windows, there are swimming pools.
Where we live we must have a symmetrical partner.
So there will be someone waiting for us.
Here, symmetry to counteract solitude. (V)
The book is arranged in three sections: The Passenger, The Surgeon’s Daughter, and Songs For Birds & Rivers. In Section two the I and the surgeon’s daughter, Beretta (see above, “whose name is…” “Whose nature is…”), are traveling through some land that could possibly be the land of Zero, a wasteland of sorts. This place of Zero is portrayed by running through the list of “organized religions” that have been extinguished, from Muslims to Eroticists, noting, “There is only Design, intelligent and otherwise (XXXIV).”

Also, in this section, “I” and Beretta (whose description alternates between human-being: “My poor, cold Beretta, skin hung on a glass skeleton (XXI),” and machine gun: “She is mostly blank but Mays about her center in russet and gold (XXXIII)”) enter a pre-Babel world, where there is not one common language, but no language at all:
Beretta insists upon driving. She has carved a map into her forearm. A world without the distinction of language. The notation or gap left to indicate emptiness.

Despite my fear of disease, we bathe in the Severn. (XLIII)
The narrator’s convoluted explanations of stimuli in Section one and the documented emptiness of Section two set the tone for the last section, Songs for Birds & Rivers, which includes the only titled pieces of the book. The titles, taking their names from previously mentioned birds and rivers, only detract the reader from the poems’ actual content; for example, “The Nile” opens with the lines:
In Zero there exists the Ideal, a wordless literature.
A pronounced symmetry between the divine and magical, in this instance: green. (XLIV)
Section three offers fewer questions and more statements, such as, “The greatest riddle is that we occupy bodies (The Nile, XLIV).” The commentary on the visceral allows the narrator to provide insight on one of Zero’s themes: evolution. Ironically, but one can guess not unintentionally, the majority of these evolutionary explanations are biologically impossible:
We encounter a theory that the dinosaurs evolved into birds that in turn evolved into rivers (A Lark, XLV).
Most noticeably, toward the end of the book we, as readers, discover that Zero’s narrator, this “I” that has compelled us with its “stories” only we would “understand” is not at all co-dependent. In the poem “The Elbe” Froude writes,
You may notice the absence of biographical detail. In its place, various ablatives of an obscure declension. Formulaic? Perhaps. But this is the nature of Design….

With what authority do I speak? On whose behalf? I have escaped thus far the ridicule of naming. I remain your servant, your master, your— (L)
Our Zero. Leaving us readers no farther along than when we started and, for some reason, we don’t mind. Why? What makes our time and effort through the “formulaic” journey of “ablatives of an obscure declension” worth our while? Froude’s justification: “But this is the nature of Design.” Even if we don’t know exactly what the nature of Design really means, it seems like a legitimate scapegoat. And throughout the book, this is what Froude does best: any statement that should signal “history,” “fact,” or “truth,” is eventually negated:
The Nile is the longest river in the world. The Amazon is the longest river in the world. The Severn is the longest…. (XII)
As a whole, Zero questions the relationship between “fictions” (poetry, prose, literature) and “facts” (history, definition), and where in both fiction and fact language fails in conveying anything of absolute truth. Froude writes,
Language as defunct currency.

Value is not predicate. In its purest form, the poem escapes the influence of gravity…..

When faced with extinction, evolution may
appear as novelty.
You are a turncoat, sir.
A sphinx in azure.
The sky over Billings. (The Danube, XLVIII)
Zero is meant to be read and re-read multiple times, and Froude knows this, for it is our desire, as audience, to “make sense of something” that Froude is manipulating. Taking a nod from Williams, Froude writes, “Much depends on whether I am airborne (XVII).”
But don’t believe it, in fact, take only one thing as “truth,”

There are whispers of Zero in Kentucky…. (XXXV)

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Sarah Suzor was born and raised in Wyoming. Her chapbook "It was the season, then." is forthcoming from EtherDome Press. Her poetry, reviews and interviews have appeared in various online and print magazines including Hotel Amerika, Rain Taxi and Monkey Puzzle. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she is a co-curator for the national reading series 3+3 Poetry and an editor for Highway 101 Press.