on The Sonnets (Bloof Books) and Steal It Back (Saturnalia Books), poetry by Sandra Simonds
With speed, one’s attention may dart from jotting a shopping list, to a radio report on a bombing in Ankara, to a daydream, to a child in the yard poking a stick at a dead squirrel. With speed, a poet changes what is sensed and envisioned into a poem, an incarnation of the mind’s unstoried action we all experience. A poem accelerates change. This is also the role of magic, zipping past the sluggish durations that determine non-magical life. But speed also generates and underscores the ephemeral, creating spectacles that appeal to our subjectivity.
In two new collections, her third and fourth, Sandra Simonds offers poems that embody the simultaneity of things and events. It is critical that things don’t “add up” and that they remain discrete. Why? Because when we stop considering their unique qualities, we tend to devise facile or oppressive ways of explaining them. Thus, they may congregate, but they may not aggregate. In “Shopping Mall Pastoral” (below) from The Sonnets,, a worried preoccupation with pregnancy, streaking through fashion on display, leads to a vision of distorted national nutrition:
World as denim pyramids, permanent makeup,
feathered metal necklaces, the embossed eyebrows
of queen Hatshepsut all over a twenty-dollar miniskirt.
How this aquamarine washable silk dress makes me think
of Lady Lazarus! I’m pregnant in Forever 21
on Friday at three o’clock when all the girls, drunk
on purple rhinestones, line up to try on their cantaloupe-
colored dresses. I think about bloody show,
home birth, touch a faux emerald brooch,
think about how doulas discuss the quality of cervical mucus,
how placenta looks like a cow’s soft brain when exposed to a pig’s
hysterical hormones, think about how our cows’ genetically
altered cells scramble the fields of American eggs
into hot dogs, how everyone eats with four stomachs.
Assertive and punchy, Simond’s poems suggest a speaker standing guard, wary of having her powers stolen: “Everything / I say here I own. I’m my own / master of this here zone. I write / what I sing like karaoke. I sing what I write / like Kryptonite” (“American Songs”). Like all voices that speak in extremis, Simonds’ is more attuned to pitch than tone. There are no subtle considerations. She privileges bluntness and immediacy. But strangely, as the persona rather knowingly inflates itself into speech, it also seems to empty itself into the turbulent well of its own sources. It is as if the poem watches itself in a mirror, regarding its otherness as the more original surface.
I’m going to tell you a sonnet and it’s going to go by fast, so
you’re going to have to listen. It will have a moral. It’ll be tight
like a haiku. It will take place when I’m in twelfth grade and I’m going
to be the main character. It is 1994. In this sonnet I will
slip Chinese menus on people’s doorknobs
with red and blue rubber bands in Manhattan Beach, California
at the same time I imagine my classmates are slipping on condoms
to prevent themselves from making more of themselves.
This is what I do every day after school to help out my family.
This sonnet sincerely hopes you understand that even though
It’s about class and poverty and giving my mom an extra $75 a week
and all of that important stuff that it’s also about how this work,
walking from pink house to yellow house to gray house, gave me beautifully
sculpted calf muscles as well as the ability to write this sonnet.
Speed can spill into glibness and randomness. But perhaps a poet intent on maintaining loyalty to the jittery manner of the mind may inevitably deposit some debris. Simonds’ leaping imagery, surprising remarks and quirky narrative bits flash up from the page so that her angled vectors and stranded oddities become accessories. In fact, the blurting is essential to the act of deflating any impulse to reflect credit where it isn’t deserved. Standard abstract values don’t stick to these quaking walls. But renovated values emerge – a stiffened feminist spine, a concern for social relations, and directness about the relationship between making art and making ends meet. Simonds’ strongest conviction may be, as George Oppen wrote, “not to communicate experiences, but to communicate the ‘realness’ of experience.” The poet as frantic bounty hunter captures it for us, practically for free.
THIS IS THE NEW ROMANTIC
All the love® I love® turns to shit.
Well, at least I try, goddammit!
I’m talking about the love® of poetry now.
Like how some people hold onto their
poems for so long and then publish them
in the Nation. I think it adds love® to value
and value to the love® of nation. Some poets
grow up on expensive farms. They’ll tell you about their
chlorophyll childhoods, how easily they led donkeys around
a field. I imagine they become love®’s grassroots activists.
Fuck that shit. Ixnay rich poets,
their collection agrarian past is Pig Latin
to me. This is the new romantic®: I’ll post everything
on the internet to devalue® it for free.
In this world, Oppen’s “realness” is filched from us, a felony abetted by the most retrograde forces in the culture. In Steal It Back, a sequence of poems, Simonds portrays a woman’s life as a non-stop reclamation project comprising bursts of disgust, amazement, weariness, humor, critique, and reflection. Plus, barricades of fine filibuster and word-play. Her signature gesture is a nanosecond pivot from the personal to the public, from the candidly intimate to the blandly impersonal. The first poem, “Alice in America,” introduces Alice, a person to whom the poems may be about and addressed, and who may also be the speaker. Or not. In any event, she provides a way of alternately blurring and focusing the element of identity, a relinquishing and amassing of authority. The poem’s second part reads:
This psychometric Republic
Houses astronomic debtors
With geometric heads and aches
Get well Never get better Their optometrists
Housed in glass malls Their glasses
Concave Alice moves in convex debit card
Transactions Alice holding wet contracts
Is not convinced Alice with ripped contact lenses
Her pupils ripe but her flesh always object
Her asymmetric breasts toujours touched by men in charge
From the charged and disorderly core, several vectors shoot out. The woman is teaching a humanities course; there are references to classical Rome, the Renaissance, Modernism. She dwells near Lake Ella in Tallahassee. She has an agonized love life and is pregnant; then she breast feeds and the children grow up. The men can’t provide what she needs. There is Ann Romney and 1-800-FLOWERS among other miscellanea. But ultimately, Steal It Back isn’t concerned with what happens to its contents. It’s the sound and movement of its plaint that matters, the willful freedom to treat an entire existence as sheer material, as proof of the failure of circumstance to molest the tongue. Below, the second part of “Glass Box”:
When my friend told me he was in love with someone else,
of milk since the body is relentless. A troll on Twitter.
It was snowing on all the arches, on the atrium, the four
chamber of a chicken’s short-lived, factory-style heart.
The word “psalm” comes from the Greek word “to pluck
a lyre.” Maybe I can address you now. My husband
will be furious. Coward. Liar. A voice says, “Alice, why did
you have another baby?” Exercise:
reread the Ten Commandments.
For the person-in-the-poem, speed is necessary when demands exterior to art press down on the writer. Speed also allows the most actual parts of experience to ascend, as in this excerpt from “A Poem For Landlords” (“Poets hate their landlords”):
I am writing this so quickly.
Soon Craig will be home
and I will need to breastfeed
and cook dinner.
I am writing this so fast.
I will not be able to look
back at it but just now
I am looking back at it since I made
dinner and cleaned the house
and I am also revising it
and thinking about how
my anger has subsided
because at dinner Ezekiel
told me he kissed
his friend on the cheek at school
and he says it is “okay to hug
a friend but we
don’t kiss friends at school.”
Steal It Back is a bravura performance. And it is quite performative: smart and shrewd and attuned to the habits of its audience. Another entry in Oppen’s notebooks reminds me of Simonds’ work: “There is not a ‘cure’ for us, a reversal of some wrong or perverse decision which we have made somewhere or sometime. It is the death of time which has passed, the accumulation of knowledge which has confronted us with despair.” Simonds’ poetry is full of knowledge that yields no relief. But its awareness-beyond-knowledge, its intuitive grasp of the moment, gives me great pleasure. Furthermore, one feels that these poems lead the reader towards an earned arrival. She ends her poem “Black Leopard” with these lines: “she who is wise puts / down breadcrumbs, never plays dumb, gets home before sunrise.”
[The Sonnets -- published November 3, 23014, 79 pages, $$15.00 paperback. Steal It Back -- published December 1, 2015, 90 pages, $15.00 paperback.]
You can read Simonds’ poem “I Grade Online Humanities Tests” by clicking here.