Zoë Hitzig’s first book of poems, Mezzanine, is a collection of facts, retold with empathy and stunning lyricism. Her poems span politics, the economy, the law, and other institutions that are often false sources of hope, just as imperfect as the humans who created them.
Many of the poems tie in the technologies we now depend on, and our skewed relationship with them—“Does the season match the birdsong, / did I hear the birdsong over the white noise machine”—but the way Hitzig combines the technical with the poetic leaves behind a very human feeling, one of hope more than impossibility.
Hitzig examines the systems we have in place where the few assert power over the many, including the legal and prison systems—their failures and unfortunate outcomes, particularly prisoners who’ve served sentences for crimes they didn’t commit. “The Levee Speaks,” “On Styrofoam,” “Objectivity as Blanket,” and “Pawn Slip” were inspired by the stories of four death row inmates who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated by DNA testing.
“Division Day,” Hitzig tells us in the notes, is a response to Benedict Anderson’s analysis of the rise of nationalism in Imagined Communities and Stephen Hawking’s final paper “Soft Hair on Black Holes” (co-authored by Malcolm Perry and Andrew Strominger). Hawking’s work asks how a black hole could make matter disappear, and suggests that perhaps “soft hair” at the edge of the black hole could hide matter, meaning it isn’t actually destroyed at all, just concealed. “Division Day” explores how marginalized voices are similarly concealed when nationalist thinking dominates.
Hitzig is a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard. The field of economics has been historically dominated by men, a theme Hitzig seems to highlight in some of these poems. Part III of “Division Day” mentions Rosalind Franklin, a chemist who contributed to the discovery of DNA structure. Hitzig says:
“When my colleague asks
how are you doing today what I want to say is
what Franklin was known to say often:
I am good, though female.”
Along a similar theme, she writes in “Pernkopf Atlas (II)”:
“History and men enjoy a peace
they somehow feel they earned by buying bonds or listening to a speech.
Remarkable meaning is accessible by private jet
as there is no difference between holding bonds and holding
someone in them.”
Hitzig’s debut collection is socially thoughtful without being preachy or sentimental. Her poems tell stories of the overlooked, the inevitable victims of domination. Power as well as suffering is handed down. And with our systems in the hands of the powerful, what is left for the wounded to cling to, if not facts?
“Objectivity as Blanket,” first published in The New Yorker, responds to the trial of the wrongly convicted Earl Washington, who was exonerated by a DNA sample found on a blanket.
While the majority of the poem highlights the negative—“Nor the police… Nor the common sense stork twisting at the prosecutor’s feet… Nor the shots… Nor the state… Nor the defense counsel…”—the poem ends with the line, “The polyester the royal blue the blanket on the bed of the mother of two.” Finally something true that can’t be argued with.
Like many of Hitzig’s poems in Mezzanine, she provides no answers here—because sometimes there are none—except for truths in the minutiae. What we see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. What is felt. Everyone’s story is different, and the histories we tell ourselves are only subjective. It’s refreshing to read poetry that’s just as unresolved.
By Zoë Hitzig
Published June 9, 2020