By David Nilsen
Jennifer Zilm’s debut poetry book Waiting Room (BookThug, 2016) is a curious collection. From Zilm’s disparate roles–Bible student and scholar, dental and mental health patient, public housing worker–she assembles a testament of the wilderness, the educated and unattached Sinai of western young adult life. The collection is aptly titled–these poems tell of the time between, the time before, the time after. Zilm completes one stage of a graduate degree but stops short of the next stage. She takes up work unrelated to her advanced education. She visits a dentist, because the mind must always wait on the body, and she visits a psychiatrist, because just as often the mind must wait on itself.
The collection begins with a short series of poems about Zilm’s visits to the dentist. These visits hold evident fascination for the poet, and she uses these poems to set the visual tone for the book’s themes of waiting, of consensual dissection and forecasted mending. The sterile, precise acts of the dentist and her assistants interplay with the abstract, objective tone Zilm employs in discussing this invasive work, and this tone carries forward into far more introspective and significant portions of the book in which she discusses her education, beliefs, vocation, and mental health. In “Long-Lined Sonnet for Dr. Young,” she says, “Beneath her breath / she remarks that beneath amalgams there is almost always decay.” The imagery is perhaps not subtle, but in a collection that will see extensive (and often esoteric) discussion of themes from the New Testament gospels, this works as a clever foreshadowing of a sacred text that at one point compares the rotted hearts of the religiously insincere to white-washed tombs; a white veneer can hide untold hurt, directed both inward and outward.
The book next takes us to Zilm’s graduate work in biblical studies at the University of British Columbia (she earned her master’s, but stopped short of her PH.D). Zilm explores experimental forms in this section, structuring some poems as emails, CVs, lecture notes, and other unusual formats. These poems showcase Zilm’s keen observational eye, never focusing on what would seem to be the obvious themes of a scene, but instead picking up on individual tics and underlying motivations. There is a section here of erasure poems taken from Zilm’s discarded doctoral dissertation, and while these are no doubt deeply significant to the poet and do at points unearth some interesting language, their meanings feel obscured.
The unraveling of Zilm’s doctoral pursuits speaks through its absence, taking up the negative space of the text while being only briefly addressed directly. Why does a student finish her masters and stop short of finishing her doctorate? Why does she start working in public housing and libraries instead of teaching or writing some scholarly tome? Why is our introduction to her through poetry? These questions would seem to hold the key to why Zilm writes from the waiting room, and perhaps out best hope at answers comes from lines in her poem “Email to the Full Professor:”
“What I am saying is that I left the New Testament
because I realized that a PH.D wasn’t going to teach me
what Jesus wrote on the ground in the orphan passage
appended to the fourth gospel.”
A degree would bring validation, not elucidation. It wouldn’t remove the questions she wrestles with, it would only increase the external expectation that she find answers for them. Better to wrestle the angel in private than from behind a lectern, looking out at eyes asking after the same unresolvable mysteries. She prefers to feel the weight of the ancient texts in her hands and touch their curves than smash them for what pearls might lie within, as hinted later in the same poem:
“Also, those majuscule Greek letters
in the Early Witnesses looked so bold and oppressive.
But Hebrew, as you must know, is warm; the characters round
and open–an empty tomb we enter into.”
Waiting Room then moves on to Zilm’s post-university life and her time working in social housing in Vancouver. These poems look at the quotidian and oft-depressing details of such work, and the ways in which it can be baptized with higher meaning. In “Witnessed Ingestion,” after telling us of her the chemical dependencies of several of her clients, she concludes:
“Now you bring your pay stub to a bank.
In the box provided for occupation
on your mortgage application
you write Witness.”
In a collection is which the sacred is often made procedural, the procedural is just as regularly made sacred.
In the book’s final section, Zilm looks at mental health, both her own and that of other artists. She explores the well-known struggles of Sylvia Plath and Vincent van Gogh through the lenses of their doctors’ personal notes, and she explores her own struggles by utilizing the same creative forms she employed while looking at her education. She offers several significant diagnoses, though she addresses them obliquely and doesn’t dissect them under direct light. She once again blurs the holy and the common, as in these lines from “My Psychiatrist Was a Math Major” in which her doctor prescribes her medication:
“Then you wrote a sacred script, a list poem Rx
of sedatives and Selective Serotonin Reuptake
The very next poem, “The Road to Sainthood,” culminates many of the collection’s themes. She references the way mental illness can be a form of martyring, our diagnoses bringing beatification, with lines like “Our Lady of the Lowered Lids” and “St. OCD, or / Our Lady of Perpetual Anxiety of Borderline Features.” The kicker is in the opening lines of the poem’s final stanza:
“All this time I have been waiting–patiently–
for you to transform my name into a diagnosis.”
Waiting, as always. Waiting and waiting. Waiting to turn hurt and fear and anxiety–perpetual questions themselves–into the abbreviations of diagnosis, understanding, nameable foes. The patiently of that first line would seem to hold a dual meaning, the first (and obvious) describing her saintly long-suffering in awaiting explanation, the second referencing her identity as a patient, an occupant of waiting rooms, a vocational waiter-on-doctors for a piece of her personal identity to append to her self-image. As she says late in the poem, “Good patients wait for such beatification.”
Waiting Room is available now at Greenville Public Library.