Waiting for Achilles

Waiting for Achilles by Jo Sarzotti, Black Lawrence Press, $16.95

“The years splinter & fall away/Like glass under the hooves of horses.”

As I get older, I see more and more loss surrounding me. Friendships fade as people move on to new careers and new cities, the elder family members who guided me are passing away or losing their memories of my most formative experiences, and my own body feels like it may collapse if I give my kids any more piggyback rides. In truth though, loss is always here with us. This is why Jo Sarzotti’s new book, Waiting for Achilles, is a good read for any stage of life you’re in.

Sarzotti’s descriptions of loss are raw and honest. “Your body cold on the bathroom tile./You could’ve told me. You wanted/A road you could sink knee deep/In. I’m not going to forgive you” she writes in “Overdose.” It would be easy to shy away from the anger and umbrage often caused by loss, but here the poet confronts it with courage. This rich emotional honesty continues throughout the collection with lines like, “When I think of you, I/Feel killed./Bits of myself/Exploded.” A loss is not always a death, sometimes it is a betrayal. Sometimes the person you’ve lost is still around and that is something else that many of us have to reconcile. I applaud this poet for giving voice to some of the emotions this situation may arouse.

Communicating a sense of loss in this way would be more difficult if Sarzotti wasn’t so adept at using her imagery to create the mood of the poem. She uses just the right amount of details to provide a quick yet lasting image without overburdening the reader with descriptions. Many of her poems are short, effectively using the poet’s gift for economy and selection to fit an entire landscape into two or three lines. “Long fingers of poplar shadow the lawn./We head west in a swerve of canyon blinded” and “The flight of a bolting horse/& the rider/in a field of sad trees” are just a couple examples of this.

In addition to loss, Sarzotti’s main concerns in this collection are her life, horses, Greek Mythology, and Old Hollywood; not necessarily in that order. The poems I enjoyed the most in Waiting for Achilles were either about horses or used horses in their imagery. This might be because my daughter just had her first pony ride and horses have been on my mind. But it is also quite obvious that Sarzotti has a love of the equine and it is always enjoyable to read what people are passionate about. I didn’t connect as deeply with the poems about Greek Mythology or Old Hollywood. Perhaps it is hard for these poems to compete with the pure exhilaration of “Racing in the open field singing/Feels like forever,/Black neck, flying mane.”

As you can see, even in a book containing so much loss, the poet still finds room for exuberance. I suppose this is because if one is to survive loss, there must at least be some amount of acceptance. In order to enjoy the beauty of life again, we need to come to terms with its uglier aspects. As Sarzotti writes, “How small the bands/Of living,/How exceptional/To be alive.” Eventually, we all have to move forward. Thankfully, Waiting for Achilles provides some wisdom and honesty to help so many on the path ahead.

Benjamin Schmitt is the Best Book Award and Pushcart nominated author of three books, most recentlySoundtrack to a Fleeting Masculinity. His poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Hobart, Worcester Review, Columbia Review, Roanoke Review, and elsewhere. A co-founder of Pacifica Writers’ Workshop, he has also written articles for The Seattle Times and At The Inkwell. He lives in Seattle with his wife and children.

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