“You are born the weirdo that you are,” Jennifer Willoughby writes in her carnivalesque debut “Beautiful Zero.” This line encapsulates the feel of the book: If you can’t help the strange leaps of your mind, why not embrace them?
“Beautiful Zero” won Milkweed’s Linquist & Vennum Prize, an award with an impressive purse: $10,000.
It is easy to see how Willoughby’s manuscript stood out from the stack of entries. Her poems crackle with humor and vibrant images: “I stand next to a Key West/crypt whose inscription reads: I told you I was sick.” “I was feeling revived as an old/steel mill on the first day of a brand new war.” “Spring arrives like a bingo winner in a green church/basement.”
The book opens: “Time: sunset. I am having a clearly defined feeling.” Instead of naming or describing that feeling, Willoughby zeros in on a concrete detail: “My kneesocks nestle at my feet.”
Like a film script, Willoughby’s poems focus on actions, objects and settings. The emotions are left for the actor — or in this case the reader — to fill in.
She quips, “Take it from me, Caroline, a crisis of faith/is not as interesting as a dead pigeon.”
With short sentences and even shorter lines, her poems have the staccato rhythm of a classic police interrogation scene. Willoughby may appreciate such a comparison. She is clearly a cinephile, and her poems make allusions to films and television. In her hilarious parody of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” she writes, “They say okay, nature, we are here to participate.”
At the center of the book is “Kaiser Variations,” 10 poems that take place in a hospital after various calamities befall the protagonist. The title refers to Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest health care networks in the nation. The mood of the poems is unsettling and evokes the hushed atmosphere of a hospital at night.
The speaker is “sky-high on morphine like the sad vampire/in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.” She is visited by her lover and by shadowy figures such as the “night surgeon,” who utters mysterious lines like: “Kids, we may not be able to see/the stars from this window, but they’re there.”
Although the night surgeon is strange, he’s never menacing. Nor is there anything cynical or biting about Willoughby’s poems. Instead, her work is full of joyful absurdity.
She writes: “They say the age of irony is dead/so I put on my glasses and prepare/to be a vehicle of complete sincerity.”
“Beautiful Zero” is a refreshing read by a poet who sincerely embraces her inner weirdo.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and a writer in Pittsburgh.
By: Jennifer Willoughby.
Publisher: Milkweed Editions, 51 pages, $16.
Events: With writers Brian Laidlaw and Joni Tevis, 7 p.m. March 9, Soo Visual Arts Center, 2909 Bryant Av. S., Mpls., free but donations accepted, and with writers Rachel Moritz and Jonah C. Sirott, 7 p.m. March 10, Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, 333 East River Road, Mpls.