As if Free by Burt Kimmelman
(Talisman House, Jersey City, 2009)
The romance of reading is in many ways intrinsically tied to the notion of curling up with a good book, the weight and feel of its physicality in one’s hands, the smell of inked paper, the repetitive small progress of turning one page to reveal the next pair of pages. This romance elicits sensations akin to a good cup of warm drink or fresh baked goods. It is the obstacle that Kindle and the IPad are seeking to navigate around, how to make their own delivery of text somehow an approximation of the delights and romance of the book. When it comes to poetry, the experience of an individual collection can run up against this pervasive and entrenched romance of the reading experience.
Whereas prose narratives are engines of propulsion, poems in a collection often invite pause—so unlike the model of the novel as page-turner, whodunit, potboiler, thriller, and so on. The momentum of the novel, or its newly hot cousin the memoir, is very often sorely lost in the experience of a book of poems. To say it differently, the act of reading poetry keeps us immersed in the poem—and the space between poems, from poem to poem in a collection, rather than propulsion a good book of poems yields circumspection, especially after a particularly affecting poem, yields the desire, even the need, to extract oneself from the text in order to reflect or gather up one’s forces in preparation for the next poem. The old adage that verse reverses whereas prose proceeds bears out this point. In short, successful book-length prose often allows us escape into another world sustained by each turn of the page. Lyric poetry, the dominant mode of the last century and extending into this one, offers sustenance of a different sort, and one clearly not valued in book form by many of the reading public.
Burt Kimmelman’s sixth collection of poetry, As If Free, his fifth in the last ten years, provides a rare reading experience, a collection both propulsive and circular. The great advantage of a poetry collection, even in the age in which the term narrative arc is tossed around with abandon, is that one may enter into it from a variety of points. The notion of reading a traditional novel by beginning in the middle is mostly ludicrous, but a collection of poems, while suggesting progress, also can invite attention to individual lyrics that merit such attention in their own right outside the context the collection provides. The language of poetry criticism and review, moreover, tends to award merit to individual poems or the project of a collection, areas of attention worthy of consideration but neglectful of the desire of many readers to find a book of poems that invites one to curl up, to become immersed in it due to a variety of qualities.
Many are the times I have found poetry collections whose overall project and narrative trajectory, when there is one, are engaging but whose individual poems fall short outside the structure of the volume. Equally frequent are the collections that house poems in which the poet plays out formal or personal invention as the most apparent raison d’etre of the book, be that invention a certain attention to a length or meter of line, an overall shape, form, or aesthetic consistent from poem to poem, or a certain tone or sensibility. What I am calling rare, and of which I am citing Kimmelman’s As If Free as an example, is the collection whose accomplishment is to be so seamless in its execution of form and so nuanced and unproclaimed in its delivery of voice as to allow the reader to enjoy the collection both as one would a good book of prose, finding solace, insight, and comfort in the world it creates, and also as one experiences the pause and call to reflection and reversal of poetry.
In preparing my review of this collection I was rewarded with twin experiences, the joy of sitting down with a book of poems, which gave me reason to keep going and rewarded me with deepening engagement as the narrative of the collection unfolded, coupled with the joy of carrying the volume about with me in my bag and pulling it out on the subway or during a still moment between appointed tasks to open to a random poem and be drawn into not only the delights of that poem in and of itself but also how that poem sent me back into the collection as a book unified by its narrative, associative, and figurative tropes. The danger of a review such as this is that my argument is based on desire and the pleasure of having that desire fulfilled, of wanting a volume of poetry to at least on occasion provide me as reader with the palatable conflict between pause and propulsion. For this reviewer, that is precisely the experience I found in Kimmelman’s latest book.
“Variation of Green” functions not unlike section 48 of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in that it encapsulates many of the recurrent images and themes prevalent throughout a collection constituted of discrete lyric poems. Unlike “Song of Myself,” however, Kimmelman’s poems resist the lyricism of Romanticism, preferring instead an aesthetic grounded in the Objectivist tradition most clearly embodied in the work of George Oppen. Kimmelman’s aesthetic, like Oppen’s, makes manifest the tensions and overlaps between the inner world of a speaker and the outer world that speaker encounters. From near the end of the collection, the poem, like those around it, exists in the world of spring, coming after the winter poems that are predominant in the book’s earlier pages. As he does so well throughout As If Free, Kimmelman describes a pastoral setting that he later complicates:
… a brisk breeze,
might make us think of the grand
landscape whose wind in the trees
startles mythical creatures
awake, the hills, the sweep of
a cloudy, furious sky.
Yet there is a purer form,
a sure possibility,
the simple color, at once
dependable and filled with
our dearest ghosts….
Like Yeats during the afternoon of his poetic life, the poet of “Sailing to Byzantium,” Kimmelman finds solace and inspiration in the world of art, its ability to captivate and endure, but unlike the Yeats of that time, Kimmelman resists the urge to live predominantly in the world of human creation typified by representational painting. Dubbing a world inhabited by “our dearest ghosts” “a purer form” than the mythical creatures and grand landscapes of canvases of Yeats’s time and place, the Ellsworth Kelly series of paintings being evoked in the poem’s opening lines, and then contemplated later in the poem, oblige Kimmelman and us, in our ruminations and discoveries, to choose not to dwell in that older world that clearly is unchanging but instead in a
world beyond green, [which] has never
been known—for what is there to
know? What is there is just there,
and we stand alongside it,
After almost 70 pages, in which the poet negotiates in a variety of settings in addition to this—familial, solitary, and pastoral—the tensions between not only art and life but also presence and departure, the pace of the natural and post-industrial worlds, and an aging life’s ever slower dance with mortality, we arrive emphatically not in regret, remorse, escape, or mourning but an astonishment presented not as epiphany but a depth and breadth earned through the mulling of existence from a range of circumstances and perspectives.
Early in the collection “Fra Angelico at the Met” focuses not on the paintings but rather what Fra Angelico does with light as trope, using it to make beautiful, as depicted in the paintings,
the torment of the sick,
of the tortured martyrs,
their headless bodies that
once were bathed in pain, and
are now covered with the
light of grace….
Even this early in the collection, after an opening poem detailing the slow demise of an aging mother, the certain ache to accept this light as redemptive is denied, viewed as “an all-/too-human transgression.” Art can create beauty but in so doing it can also deceive us into the belief that torment and torture, and the pain incumbent therein, can somehow be made beautiful, that the promise of paradise after pain, if simply accepted, makes possible not only beauty but paves the way for further atrocities or the unwanted alleviation of gravitas and grief. But as the poet dismisses simple faith, he also dismisses the easy aesthetic and existential choice of nihilism. For Kimmelman, the questions he continues to ask indirectly yield no certain replies. If all great art exists in the tensions between apparent oppositions, Kimmelman is operating in a realm of no little significance and doing so adroitly. A poem such as the lovely “Tuft of Lavender” renders pictorially the aforementioned flowers accompanied by “little bees in the/sun, as if they were all.” How easy for a lesser poet or lesser mind to leave us with this uncomplicated view of a minor Arcadia, and Kimmelman seems almost ready to do so until the poem’s last three words, where he echoes that famous refrain of Poe—
might be another one…
place, where we might sit for
a while, or never move.
In one of the more personal and poignant poems in As If Free, this tension between stasis and change takes on a different face. A son joins his aging father in a driveway, where the father stands
sweeping up the fallen, brittle leaves…
…The sun is strangely
bright for this time of year and we know the cold
is sure to come.
One of Kimmelman’s gifts is his ability to address mortality and the questions it continually makes clear, in what he terms in “Variation of Green” “a purer form,” one he in that poem in part depicts as being drawn in “simple colors.” With a visual artist a consistent palette of simple colors can lead to monotony if an artist’s pictorial content does not evidence enough variety. This is no less true for a poet. Kimmelman avoids this trap by modulating the content of his poems. Take for instance the poems that precede and follow “Raking the Leaves.” A poem elegizing the poet Jackson Mac Low leads into “Tufts of Lavender,” and then the poem in question, which is followed by a poem of self-portraiture, a poem of natural description and historical context, and then a poem of another sort of familial relationship. Each poem is a kind of dance with the questions that dominate the collection and each poem addresses those questions in differing modulations of the oblique and the transparent. Kimmelman paints with simple colors a poetry distrustful though drawn to “mythic creatures” and grand landscapes. Art can provide us with the “all too human transgression” of creating worlds in which we might prefer to live, and while As If Free might locate such enticing visages, it does not dwell there. In “Ed Ruscha’s Course of Empire” Kimmelman writes of
world coming all at
once upon us…
the made world were now
complete, what we had
wanted all along…
…dark sky as
in a photograph
from some other time…
up is for those who
I take that last line as the poet’s command to himself and to his reader, that the love of oblivion is preferable to the love of illusion, no matter how stunning and compelling its execution. For those who want to live the life given them in the world given them as well, there is no choice but the declaration of that last line, but oblivion as conceived in this way is not dire. From “Susan Sontag Has Died”:
with the softest
of hellos, an
old friend we have
never met, drops
by one day for
a coffee and
--yet we keep on
talking. A light
streams across the
table, its cups,
saucers and spoons,
these the remains
of a good life.
These are neither the lines of an apologist for nihilism nor the lines of a poetry ensnared by art as opposition to life. These are the lines of a poetry in which, as Holderlin argued, one sees a life in which one dwells poetically.
That poetry will ever compete with novels and memoirs in the market place is another sort of delusion, but the notion that intelligent, imaginative, and highly crafted poetry only speaks to other poets is equally so. Burt Kimmelman’s As If Free lives in the tensions between like few poets writing today and does so by drawing attention not to the poet’s own abundant gifts but to the quiet, nuanced, and deftly syllabic poems that made at least this reviewer desire both the next poem and what preceded, to connect what I had just read with what had come before.
Jim Tolan’s most recent review appeared in Gently Read Literature. His essay "Between Worlds: Poetry, Ethnicity, and Class" is just out from Changing English, and his poems have appeared in the American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Fulcrum, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Linebreak, and Margie, among other journals, and will be included in the forthcoming Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He lives in Brooklyn and is an Assistant Professor at the City University of New York.