Watching for Life

In David Zieroth’s 2022 book Watching for Life (McGill-Queen’s University Press, The Hugh MacLennan poetry series), it is refreshing to read poems that originate from the discipline of a single vantage point. Day after day, the poet gazes down from his apartment balcony into the urban lane below. This structure unifies the collection as a whole and contributes to the pleasingly consistent tone and style of the poems throughout. Nonetheless, while observing what passes by provides ample subjects, I wondered how each poem would present something new beyond simply a descriptive record.

Zieroth’s method delighted, what might be termed poetic expansion. As if staring imaginatively at a small green sprout, what began as simple observation flowers into a larger philosophical meditation. For example, in the opening poem “On the Journey Toward My Dead Parents”, the poet ponders “two large stones / by the entrance to the underground garage”. Gradually, fanciful wondering about the stones’ earliest purpose and origins, and even whether they might remember, transforms them into something much vaster, remnants of primordial volcanics, a “unity we all must have had sometime before”. After all, “all of us have destinies / and days when what we do will not be / remembered.”

Similarly, Zieroth can expand his initial observations to discover loveliness within the ugly. In “On the Dual Nature of Things, I Write”, a gull’s “eagerness to eat what’s vile / and leaking and staining asphalt / with a smear only winter rains will erase” is transformed: “today he owns the air, he is beautifully / there, to remind me that his sea is near / and a joy to remember”.

How comforting to see what usually goes unremarked become suddenly greater, imbued with new meaning or significance, as in “A Couple Walks in the Lane”. A man gently bares the neck of his female companion, then cannot resist kissing her cheek as they approach the steps of North Shore Oncology. “and suddenly they are neither patients nor / visitors but Adam and Eve”.

At other times, Zieroth moves in even more closely, from observing the actions of people below to imagining what is going on inside their heads. For example, he details how a woman in jeans and white runners might be replying on her cell phone about the chores awaiting her at home, or a man decides which turn to take “roundabout to where he began / to search inside solitude for what can be // found among it silences”. Zieroth even projects into the mind of one of the lane’s four telephone poles: “does the old / dried trunk forced into modernity / recall for that instant how it once / also lived, was green, aspired to /sun and cones”.

After watching from afar, the poet eventually is moved to address those passing below directly: “work harder on your mouths / bring them into horizonal lines / less grim and discouraged”. At this point after such constant looking outward, the poet’s focus turns on himself: “and I ask / can I still learn this skill // to live utterly on my own.”

In the final poem “Of Course the Gods Have Fled the Lane”, a film crew has displaced the usual passersby, and the poet is coming to terms with living under constraints. “I urge my thinking to accept / the day as is and what it offers me / which might not be the highest light / but still the sun lands on the dark bird / and makes it shine”.

Watching for Life is an impressive read. Beginning from the simple observed details of who and what are traversing a city lane, it reaches far beyond into bigger questions about life, always surprising, always thought-provoking.