Review of Matthew Zapruder’s The Pajamaist

by Michael McCarthy


The Pajamist introduces the reader to a New York of windows, ghosts, and trees. And peeping toms; that is, people peering at each other through the necessarily omnipresent windows when a population of millions is compressed on a tiny island.


The poems in this, his second collection, are long, experimental, hefty, frothy. Zapruder titles one “Haiku,” and then he takes a hammer to the three-line minimalist standard and spills the poem out over four pages. Typography sometimes twirls like DNA ladders. Zapruder is inventive, playful, cryptic. If obscenities amid otherwise eloquent language bother you, you won’t like some of these poems.


“Twenty Poems for Noelle” has intriguing work. It is not clear from the poems just who Noelle is, but the name appears in each poem; each is, in fact, addressed to her. In sum, Noelle appears to be not a real person but the personification of a post-traumatic New York, one minus its twin towers. A patient still having phantom pains after the appendage is gone. If this is correct, Noelle is clever but enigmatic: Break down the word into letters. No “elle.” The “ll” looks like the twin towers—and they nullified, are gone. No ll. The first of the untitled poems opens:


       Noelle, somewhere in an apartment

       symphony number two

       listens to you breathing.


In a later one, the poet asks:


         I left because is it so wrong

       if I’m going to die to want

       to do so in a city with at least

       one excellent delicatessen

       and the proximity of you?


What is refreshing about the Noelle poems is that they show restraint. September 11 was an unfathomable overwhelming tragedy, and Zapruder wisely stayed away from the sadly familiar ghastly twisted wreckage in lower Manhattan and takes us to where the soot and dust settled elsewhere in the city and its boroughs—and he keeps the site specific references (Tompkins Square Park, for instance) light so as not to put off anyone who is unfamiliar with the neighborhoods and streets of New York.


There is palpable grief and despair, broken by slivers of hope, in the twenty Noelle poems. One particularly rich one opens over a glass of wine in a place with an “old distressed sign,” which said “grand hotel de la russe,” and the waiter is described as a “ghost in black.” The poem closes arguing that there is nothing better than sitting there with a woman and “the ghost”


       …while down under

       manhattan bridge overpass the rich

       carefully lick each other in their lofts


“The Pajamist,” the title work, is a prose poem, and really more prose than poem. It runs five-and-a-half pages and is an outline for a novel based on the premise that someone, the Pajamist, can put on a pair of pajamas for a price and bear the pain and suffering of others. This is intriguing, a mercenary martyr. Zapruder then uses this conceit to plumb suffering and sleep and whether we “excrete the suffering” in nightmares and other aspects of how people endure trials, awake and asleep.


The last two sections of the book, after the “Pajamist,” offer some of the most inspired and intriguing work in the book. “Kill Van Kull,” the title of the poem taken from the name of a strait between Staten Island and New Jersey, allows the long legacy imbedded in the Dutch title to resonate with the imagery of tulips throughout the poem, which follows a meandering path, literally and typographically, that brings us to a powerful close, “It’s good to die a little.”


“The Book of Oxygen” uses tightly constructed language, careful sonic work and lyric phrasing, all intertwined to great effect. Repetition, not immediately evident to the eye but heard nonetheless, helps give a lyric quality to the poem. An example:


       always in your handwriting


 Always I am

into my desk drawer

  cabinet of wanders

           wandering to rediscover


All over again, trees grow in Brooklyn in “Brooklyn with a New Beginning,” a nine-page poem that brings us powerful lines such a friend’s advice to “live in the hollows of my blood” and “Brooklyn’s a row of dented Sundays,” and “There is a discretion in stone that I envy.”


The poems in The Pajamist will haunt, puzzle and challenge. One realizes just how much this is the case after reading the particularly lucid “What I Need,” an account of visiting a museum in Philadelphia and seeing schoolchildren there on a field trip. It simply and beautifully stirs nostalgia for knobby kneed unknowing childhood.