Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems 1982-2013 by Burt Kimmelman
(BlazeVOX Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2013)
Before I get to reviewing Burt Kimmelman's work here, and at the risk of being thought a Crankenstein, I want to write some about blurbs. They sit there in First Impression category. Most prospective readers will at least scan them, if not read them thoroughly. Yet blurbs, especially ones for poetry, can be so egregious.
Maybe poetry is just too ineffable for anyone to make effective blurbs. Robert Creeley tops the blurbs on the back of this book. It remains absolutely secure that if Creeley commends something, it is worth looking into. But the words quoted here—“A rare evocation... the wonder of the world in itself.”— seem limp and unspecific. This “wonder of the world itself” sound like crap, but we know Creeley has insight.
Most of the other blurbs render meaninglessness in awkward phrase, as well. Facebook has turned like into something at best imprecise and at worst, calculating and deceptive. Nonetheless, I just want to hear the blurbers say that they liked Kimmelman's book, period. That's enough to entice my interest. honest. Not soupy phrases that could attach to any po-book.
Which leads me to say that when reviewing a book, I want to highlight what may interest Gentle Reader. I hope you are gentle, this is a tender offering that we compute. Something has to be pretty bad in an artistic and expressive sense—impossibly so—for me to try to bar others from reading it. You can write the dissertation with elevated pros and cons. I just want to offer reasons to open the book. My thinking: every book should be opened. Anyway...
Burt Kimmelman's New and Selected Poems, 1982-2013, begins with the new stuff. Somehow that interested me. The new poems superficially look no different from the older ones. I mean, so many modern and post-modern writers start out rhyming or at least maintaining strict stanzas, later to spread across the page or otherwise free up the field. He doesn't have the rhyming scheme, but the first glance does not tell if a poem is old or new.
What does not free up the field for me is the glide of subordination. The sentence, to my eye, is a strong machine. A sentence should know its weight class. That means that the trailing weight of subordinate clauses should rate within the potential of the sentence to hold things above the murk. Here then is a rub.
When too many sentences trail into registered m-dashes and vigilant commas, you might be trailing into a marsh. Marshes are wonderful explosions of whatever is going on, but sometimes there's a sinking feeling.
Example: “Visiting the Nursing Home”. Stanzas are 5 lines long. First sentence goes to line 9. That's a stretch. It has one comma and one dash. That suggests a provoking extension. Second sentence starts mid-stanza, goes six lines, two commas. Third sentence goes eleven lines (plus partial line). Three commas, and a dash that could have been a period. This brings us to the second line of the final five-line stanza. Final sentence has a comma, and a dash. The word and appears six times in the poem, attenuating the sentences without quite Faulkner verve.
Nothing is wrong here, but couldn't it be righter if the sentence were more resolute in its boundaries? Here is the last sentence: “There are things / we must do while we / can, like make music / or this sad poem / —what is possible.” The lines are Creeley perfect, but the Frankenstein dash is a clumsy attachment in the clipped parlance of trying on poetry's shoes.
More successful, and dazzling, for me, is a poem like “Morning Light”, here:
light slides along
birds under trees
on the shore.
The word “winding” seems curious to me, and that's a good thing. A Creeley measure moves the poem. Intrusions of the guy that has gotta write a poem don't seem apparent... That's the signal thing for me. Writers want to write, and we do. And in the conscious moment of writing, we write outside of the writing. I do that. So do you, Writer that reads this. Burt Kimmelman does it. Yet, saving grace, his dashes express from that very weight and clang, often and often again. You looking for Michael Jordan perfection? It don't exist. Ask Michael his own self.
Collected poems, we might expect, is warts and all. Selected too might show the human experiment of not quite hitting the mark. I don't mind at all offering up this selection as a field of interest, despite the areas where I criticize in negative tempo. Poetry happens in and out of our time, a mystery of suddenly and now. This is a work of excavation, investigation, and momentary excitement, the best kind.
Allen Bramhall: Resident of Massachusetts. Attended Franconia College where I learned a great deal from Robert Grenier Maintain two blogs. Tributary, ruminative and often humourous, and Simple Theories, which collects my recent poetry as it is written.