Zach Czaia's new poetry collection, Knucklehead, offers signposts, way stations, and commanding views along one person's journey toward enlightenment and compassion through living a fully human life, day by day. The eponymous knucklehead is a stumbler, with doubts, inadequacies, and regrets, but he is also endowed with plenty of humor and spirit, and he described the foibles of teaching, the tangle of emotions associated with marriage, and the fervent desire to live a life of simplicity, meaning, and conscience. Many of the poems draw on Biblical references that present challenges, but also offer comfort. The desire to understand, to measure up, to follow through, is a source of incessant struggle that brings tension and energy to every line.
In one long poem Czaia takes Dante as a guide, crying out to him as a man of faith but also a fellow-seeker. In another poem he revisits his own childhood years, longing for the kind of certitude that he felt in his older brother's pronouncements, even when they turned out to be wrong. The death of George Floyd, which took place a few blocks from Czaia's house, is occasion for another extended meditation on our moral obligations.
Over the course of the volume Czaia weaves a portrait of maturation. The language is lively, the tone is conversational, the thought is infused with both anguish and aspiration. As poet Deborah Keenan observes, "Czaia invites us to live out that existential tension of being there, but not quite, of hidden yet visible grace, of being home yet exiled, for the sake of valuing the gift of thisness in everyone and in everything."
Zach Czaia has worked as a teacher for fifteen years, and currently teaches English at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis, MN. His first book, Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota), was published in 2015.
"In Knucklehead, Czaia prompts us to seek unpolished diamonds in the dirt of our life, in the midst of a world that appears to have lost its center. Whilst engaging us in life's struggles and failures, Czaia invites us to live out that existential tension of being there, but not quite, of hidden yet visible grace, of being home yet exiled, for the sake of valuing the gift of thisness in everyone and in everything, lest we remain confined to a reality punctuated by Czaia's words in the cry of Twain out of purgatory 'We wish we had time [...] We have the wait for but we do not have time.' Knucklehead mirrors our own vicissitudes, whether in a quaint town in Central America or in bustling municipalities like the Twin Cities, reminding us that we are all cabeza dura or knuckleheads, and that in our blindness, 'if we would [only] understand what happened on the road to Damascus,' we would come to the realization that the old is gone, and the new has come (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17)." - Deborah Keenan
"Zach Czaia announces his understanding of the poet's craft and calling, early in this collection. 'Open your mouth, your hands…let your tongue, your hands wait…' And when the words appear, seemingly past endurance, the poet speaks. Oh, how well he speaks. Some poems are rueful, humble moments of taking an inventory of life nakedly lived. Others give words to heroes who would otherwise remain silent. We watch the poet become part of the circle of grief; or pay homage across space and time. We delight that this poet is such a comforting companion. His words matter." - Katrina Vandenberg
"Just as we encountered in his impressive debut collection, Saint Paul Lives Here (In Minnesota), Zach Czaia's Knucklehead is the poetry of pilgrimage—the poetry of a soul after the heart of God. In the spirit of Dante, who, as in Czaia's first collection, is both guide and companion to the poet, the adventure of our lives in God is to be drawn ever nearer to our maker—to bloom in friendship in the communities where we are planted. These poems are marked by motion, by a living theology dramatically distilled in a variety of poetic forms—free and metered verse, stark and lush examples of sound and sense that sing experience into poetic life. The classroom poems are so intimate and take the Dantean vision to a truly fertile place where the poet-knucklehead—in the tradition of all knuckleheads—experiences the joys and sorrows of teaching in one fluid movement, day by blessed day. 'Nothing remains as it is,' observes the poet, save for the love that moves the sun and other stars. " - Michael P. Murphy
"In Czaia's poems, the narrator sets up the job for himself and his readers in the opening poem: know the voice. open your eyes. make the choice. take it in. try. ask why. This book, intense, full of the deepest kind of thinking and feeling, pushes us to consider how this poet understands self-portraiture. No idealized narrator here: he asks...do you see me clearly? Do I? the teacher i was, and am, the husband, the kid i was, the man of faith, the seeker? A key job for this poet is figuring out what it means to remember, to honor the stories of his students, of his city, gravely wounded by the killing of George Floyd, of his faith. Compelling. Beautifully written. Read this book." - Lawrence Joseph
"The poems in Zach Czaia's Knucklehead address the struggle of becoming wise. They are open-hearted and lucid, tender and wry. 'I want to return to the moment of my belief / though the moment of my disillusionment is good too,' the poet writes about his brother tricking him into eating leaves when they were children. Wisdom proverbially knocks Czaia to the ground as Saul was on the Road to Damascus, and comes through the struggles, delights, and occasional grief of teaching high school and entering into marriage. Czaia ends his book still a knucklehead — aren't we all? — but he exits more sure of love, grace, and a God who 'lives like birds or trees, / lives like branches growing, / is shade, is cool — is free.'" - Richard Rodriguez