JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
Warsaw Bikini by Sandra Simonds
(Bloof Books, Central New Jersey, 2008)
(Bloof Books, Central New Jersey, 2008)
Mother Was a Tragic Girl by Sandra Simonds
(Cleveland State University Poetry Center, Cleveland, 2012)
… In “No Pastrami” (Walt! I’m with you in Sydney / Where
the echoes of Mamaroneck howl / Down the outback’s
pixilating corridors)—does the pastrami refer
to a highly seasoned shoulder cut of beef? Is
Mamaroneck a place in the U.S. where wild oxes howl?
I take it corridors refers to the passageway
in the supermarket? Could I read the poem as —
The speaker is doing shopping in a supermarket
in Sydney; he is walking along the eccentric
passageways among the shelves on which goods
are placed; he does not want to buy the pastrami
as he seems to have heard the echoes of wild oxes
howling in the U.S. while he addresses Walt Whitman?
In “No End to Envy”, does the envy refer to admire or
in the bad sense?
-Charles Bernstein, “A Test of Poetry”
Bernstein’s “A Test of Poetry” could have been written in response to the poems of Sandra Simonds. Of course, it asks all the wrong questions. So what are the right questions to ask?
My answer is there’s lots to get to / thru first before one gets to the questions. My answer is a question itself: is asking questions of these poems the appropriate response? My overwhelming reaction to the poems in both of these books is joy. As if someone’s overturned a cornucopia and every living thing has come spilling, pouring, rushing out. It’s as if I’ve been caught in a tsunami, but one that doesn’t drown me, one that buoys me up (well it dunks me a little, and at times I’m gasping for breath* – but there is something about reading these poems that makes me fearless. The energy, the rush.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression with this review. As Juliana Spahr notes in her blurb for Mother, “"What does it mean to be a used white wife, a mother, a tragic girl writing poems? Sandra Simonds gets into these messy words and then tears them apart. Sometimes with the words of others. And sometimes with poems made from scratch. They aren’t all bad, these words. But they aren’t all good either. And that is where Mother Was A Tragic Girl gets its power. You will at moments be laughing but then you will also at moments just as much be crying. If Antigone was alive and decided to write some poems about the nuclear family, she would write them like Sandra Simonds. These are tough”. Damn straight these are tough. But that does not negate the energy rushing through them.
I think I will call these poems poems of “joyous revenge.”
Revenge against what? To quote Speedy from Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga, “Modern times, mon.” “Interesting times”, to quote the old proverb, “May you live in interesting times.” Interesting is such a good word for what we are living thru. Living in. Neck deep at least. (Back to the tsunami image).
So: how do we live? I’ve always wondered about that. That’s been my question ever since I was a kid. Simonds doesn’t answer it, and yet, and yet … It’s a long story, anyone interested can ask, but these poems have come into my life just when I needed them. What did I need? I think of Cacus in Dante’s Inferno who, from a deep deep pit, flips God off. A smart move? It’s way too late to worry about that. We get our satisfaction where we can. I think of Spinal Tap, who cranked it to 11.
Since these poems don’t really display their strength in excerpts, I’m going to quote two in their entirety. The first is the first poem in Warsaw Bikini, “I Serengeti You”:
like a banshee, a leprechaun, a geek
in the shuffling feet of trick neurons
limbic, I skipped
town with your checkbook
rode limber sleuths through suburban felts on flushed cheek,
from gill to aorta, renal to fallopian tube
twirling like Mendel’s string bean.
in the covered wagon of the corpus collosum
traveled to Coca Island, my mind’s coliseum
sliding off your mansion’s
cedar banister wowed superstellar monks a high-altitude kiss
where the prevailing winds
clipped their yak-butter-colored robes.
As long as I could
through white matter grids, pons, gas plants, ice plants, gum
pouring from a half-inch medulla hole
Eating gumbo on a glacier of
you melt my global warming
Peeling squash by a saguaro of
you alkaline my pesticides
Doing jumping jacks on Mount Rushmore,
slurping udon noodles
my brothy stomach bulimic, bubonic,
influenzic, tubercular, emptying out
a department store’s clearance rack
- gaunt mannequin of me, oh where o where
can my Gucci be?
Well-dressed and indefatigable in my aquamarine goggles
on this timetable highway of cranial nerves
where a brute Genghis Kahn [sic] aphasia transfixes
me forward – One June day I promise to rescue
baby Jessica trapped
in her pipe, repair the Challenger’s
tummy of cosmonauts busted open
through an ozone hole the size
of sixteen Oklahomas but for now
Doctor Dura Mater, so skull to meet you
wear your you so well please put
your stethoscope to coal my syndrome chest
and tell me
where to asphyxiate
the piranha, the red-eyed firefly,
kinjakou and newt –
because the Amazon’s a
goner, a game show gong.
OK. She probably doesn’t miss one disaster during the epoch mirabilis through which she has lived, personal, public, planetary. And yet. I am so happy reading this. Because none of them stop her, she continues to live. That might sound stupid of me to note. But it’s not so easy, continuing to live. And to make music of it. Music of course is a close cousin to dance. (I told you these poems came to me when I needed them.) I could go through this poem line by line, but this is Galatea Resurrects, not The Glossator, so I’ll leave that for the reader. I will just quote Blake here: Energy Is Eternal Delight. I delight in this dance.
“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" It’s not just the dance I delight in. It’s that the dancer dances right in the mess, thru the mess, with the mess. Grace under fire, or something.
Grace under fire is good, I think, because it appears that Simonds became a mother, or at least that motherhood took a more central place somewhere between these two books. This focuses the poems on a more obviously domestic level. I should add “ostensibly” between obviously and domestic I think. Because tho the focus is narrower in a way, there is no loss of depth of field. Which is not to say that there are no other “subjects” in Mother Was a Tragic Girl. Even Olivia Benson gets her own poem (more or less). But I will transcribe one of the poems that centers on the child, or uses the child as a center:
You Can’t Build a Child
with the medicinal poppies of June
nor with Celan’s bloom-fest of dredged stone,
not with history’s choo-choo train of corpses,
not with Nottingham’s Robin Hood
nor Antwerp’s Diamondland.
Not walking on the Strand in Manhattan Beach with her
silicone breast implants, refinery, waves of trash,
not out of the Library of Alexandria
with her burnt gardens that prefigure gnarly,
barnacle-laden surfboards broken in half.
You can’t build the child with the stone paths
that we have walked on through the atmosphere,
the pirate’s plank, the diving board, the plunge,
nor with the moon whether
she be zombie or vampire.
Not with Delphi, not with fangs, or cardamom bought
in Fez, red with spring, red with
marathon running cheeks.
Not with monk chant, bomb chant,
war paint, not with the gigantic Zen pleasure zones,
nor with this harnessed pig
on the carousel that I am sitting on with my son
in Nice, France. How it burns on its axis
as if it were turning into pineapple-colored kerosene
the way the Hawaiian pig, apple in snout, roasts
in its own tropical meat under the countdown sun.
OK. This poem more or less can serve as an explanation for the miracle that is at work in life (sorry, no other word for it), and why, tho we must acknowledge all the horror and atrocity and suffering, why we must never turn our backs, that’s not where it – it – begins or ends. I think of this, about Emma Goldman: “‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ Did [she] really say that? In a word, no. The sentiment was certainly hers, and in her memoirs she told of being admonished for dancing when she was a young radical; but the actual words? No.” [http://takebackhalloween.org/emma-goldman/ Take Back Halloween] Simonds never says that, either. But, if I read her right, she does seem to say: also dance. Never forget that the dance is part of it. That delight is part of it. I won’t let you sap my poems of their fun.
I wrote at the beginning of the review: So what are the right questions to ask? I don’t have many questions for these poems, I confess. That is not to say I read them mindlessly. I could ask more questions, there is plenty of intellect at work in these poems. But I don’t feel the need. I’ll quote another poem to explain why. It’s by Ian Hamilton Finlay:
The Dancers Inherit the Party
When I have talked for an hour I feel lousy—
Not so when I have danced for an hour:
The dancers inherit the party
While the talkers wear themselves out and
sit in corners alone, and glower.
So. This is an admittedly lopsided review. Had I been in another place, I could have emphasized other aspects of these poems, such as their social consciousness, their politics, their pop culture references (all lovely), and so on. But these poems came my way when I needed to remember to stop glowering so much, to get up and also dance. Since there is no more Siskel and Ebert, I’ll say it for them. Two thumbs up.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is just past the halfway point of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch pasting stuff to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press). In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he is in the midst of two collaborations (one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick) has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. His is learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).