Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Museum of Accidents, by Rachel Zucker

By Maureen McLane

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Maureen McLane discusses poetry finalist Rachel Zucker's Museum of Accidents (Wave Books)

Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents is a sprawling, high-voltage, yet in the end tightly lasso’d work. In a moment when mommy-lit and its discontents rule the blogs and the media ecology of the chattering classes, it is striking to read such an amazingly smart, funny, and devastating inquiry into motherhood—which Zucker weaves brilliantly into her life as wife, lover, citizen, Jew, poet, and basic ol’ sentient thirty-something Upper West Side gal.


Tuesday: therapy

Wednesday: mah-jongg

Thursday: we have sex (husband and I) lights on 

. . .


          What dark thing have you done to me?


Loved me and put aside the world.


These children.



“what I hear you saying is”


Such a poem (“What Dark Thing”) refuses nothing. What appear to be jottings are in fact closely woven notations of the daily that are everywhere infused with a kind of sacred significance: the child’s breakfast, a marital argument, horrific conversations with a doctor, bits of conversational cliché. A book like Zucker’s requires people to forget their preconceptions about “poetry” and just read: which may be a problem for those who want neat little well-wrought urns. This is part of the exhilaration of her work. The book is nervy but also disciplined in its open-form unfolding; emotionally very high-keyed but knowingly so; full of great sweep and everyday muck, all integrated into a carefully calibrated series of long, often multi-page works.

This is an electric jolt of a book, baldly heroic. Zucker risks a kind of complete immolation in the confessional mode to come out the other side as an allegorical subject: this mom/lover/thinker, that husband, those kids, this twenty-first-century life, all get their complex due as we move with the poet into her very intensely rendered Vale of Soul-Making. This is a poetry of the body—see “Welcome to the Blighted Ovum Support Group,” and her very graphic registration of birth, blighted para-pregnancy, D&C’s, and darkly sensual marital sex; this is also and simultaneously a book of the ferociously alert mind. Zucker’s line thinks. She writes in an important American key, one indebted to Whitman and Ginsberg but also to women poets who opened enormous terrain especially since the 1970s—she writes an open form, yet highly structured, long-ish poem.

Zucker’s book refuses easy distinctions, as do her habits of mind: she has a profoundly un-dissociated sensibility. She is writing in a mode answerable to the way many of us live now, and she is giving shape to the pulse of these always borderline-disastrous days. (One poem addresses the injunction on ads on the NYC subway: “If you see something, say something.”) Zucker takes up the oldest task of the poet: She praises and she blames. Her humor, her lyricism, her unabashed intelligence, her narrative (indeed novelistic) gifts—this book is a fresh blast of wind in contemporary American poetry and more broadly in US letters.

Click here to read an interview in Bomb with Rachel Zucker about Museum of Accidents