Monday, March 22, 2010

Burt Kimmelman's "As If Free"

Traded books with Burt Kimmelman after befriending each other on Facebook. As If Free is his sixth book of poetry. The book arrived with a personalized form letter and a press release quoting reviewers. Of an earlier book, Robert Creeley writes, "This is a rare evocation of a luminous place indeed--the wonder of this world in itself." Not one of Creeley's better blurbs, I think, lardered as it is with stock phrases. Samuel Menashe says, ". . .Kimmelman strives for and often attains 'the simple / lettering stating / the facts'--his own words." He sounds non-committal, quoting Kimmelman on himself; he even qualifies what little he says in the quotation, by inserting the adverb "often."

What are the poems about? A mother aging and dying in a nursing home. Small observations of nature. Reflections on the visual arts. Too many poems about people having coffee and conversation in a cafe, which is presumably where Kimmelman goes to write. His subjects have not changed much from previous books, as can be deduced from a comment by another reviewer, John Curley, "Burt Kimmelman's poems flourish as they pivot from a repertoire of reiterated subjects--works of art, natural landscapes, family, the animal world--to a transfiguring notion of their properties and possibilities." The subjects are the same but I am not so sure about their transfiguration in the new book. 

Transfiguration, if there is any, must be effected by style. Kimmelman's style is plainspoken, so plain that it skirts the edge of prose, if it does not cross over. There are moments when style tightens into insight, as when the speaker's mother dancing in an "Old Age Home" is compared to "a tulip / too heavy for its stem." But the image is embedded in too much loose writing. The whole last stanza of the poem reads:

We went to dinner. Someone poured her
a glass of juice. She ate, spilling food,
with a sudden hunger. Afterward
we sat on some couches. Someone asked
her to dance. The music played. She danced
with slight, tentative steps, a tulip
too heavy for its stem. When we had
to go we kissed goodnight, and left her 
to lie down in her soft bed, her head
on her pillow, to slip into sleep.

The funny thing is that this passage would have been less bad if it were written out as a paragraph. There is a determination not to give details about the surrounding ("some couches") that would have defied the appetite for description in prose writing, and so created narrative interest and significance. The repetition of "Someone," another sign of the nondescript surrounding, produces a certain cadence. Written out as verse, however, the poem has too much non-essential information and too little concentrated music. 

The lack of music is surprising, given that Kimmelman adopts a verse line based on syllable count. The syllable count should have tightened the writing, but too often it exists as a kind of trestle over which the lines are draped like wet clothes. The ineffectualness of the principle becomes more obvious in poems with shorter lines,  as in "Visiting the Nursing Home," another poem about his mother:

Too weak for talk, she
looks up at me and
blinks her eyes, while I
settle her into
a wheelchair and roll
it through the door--out

into the spring sun
where, hidden among
the new leaves on the
distant trees, birds are
singing. I lift her
onto a white wood

bench, and she leans back,

and so on. Every line here consists of five syllables. The short verse line separates the sun, the new leaves, the trees and the birds, and so makes it hard to grasp their relationships in space and significance. The line feels wrong for this poem. It unsettles the reader, instead of giving the comfort the son wishes to settle the mother into. 

This weak ear is obviated in most of the book by the sameness of tone throughout. Quietness, however, can quickly become dull. In a few places, Kimmelman fumbles his one good tune. At the beginning of "Washing My Brother's Hair," he describes his brother leaning forward on his knees "offering himself to me," to wash we learn in the next line, but not before the unintended sexual innuendo intrudes. 

The short line can work very powerfully, as demonstrated in the most successful poem of the book, "Susan Sontag Has Died." The occasion prompts a poignant meditation on our common lot. Death

with the softest

of hellos, an
old friend we have

never met, drops
by one day for

a coffee and
conversation.

The body, the
body fails, at

last disappears
--yet we keep on

talking. A light
streams across the

table, its cups,
saucers and spoons,

these the remains
of a good life.


Every linebreak here is imbued with significance, a signal achievement if we consider how many there are. The lines themselves also work as autonomous units. I wish the poem had stopped at "saucers and spoons" because the final couplet is unnecessary and question-begging (good life?). But there is no question that, here, subject matter, voice and style come together in a very small space to find out what remains. 

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