Sunday, October 17, 2010

(The not-at-all) Simple

(Sandra) Simonds

(in San Francisco, with new poems!)


Sandra Simonds
Made From Scratch

(no place: no publisher, no date)
[self-published by the poet, 2010]
[5.75" x 8.625" | unpaginated (14 poems on 24 pages)]

About a week ago – on Saturday night, October 9, 2010, – I got myself out of the house to hear Sandra Simonds give a short (approximately 20 minute) reading, done as part of one of several dozen (yes, several dozen!) “LitCrawl” events staged that evening at various venues on or about Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Simonds’ reading took place very close to – just six city blocks – from where I live. Who’d have thunk that Simonds – who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, more than 2,600 miles away – would read less than a mile from my home? And do so just two or three days after I’d received her newest chapbook (Made from Scratch, imaged above) in the mail? And just a few months after I – ever-slow on the uptake – had finally read and fallen deeply for the poetry in Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2008), her first (and so far only) perfect bound collection?

What a confluence: poetry that excites, including some that’s new, seemingly delivered from afar to just about my front door via the person and voice of the poet. I call this sort of manifestation of poetry energy magnificent and marvelous. Praise be the spring Hippocrene!



Unfortunately, I had no camera or other recording device, and so cannot post photos, video, or audio from the reading. Nor did I take notes. But I do remember, to say the least, a few poems Simonds recited, and as it turns out they are in the new chap, as well as on-line, and I’ll discuss two of these below. These relatively new poems happen to concern, or arise from, being a new mother and having a child, and as I think you will see they bring a remarkable – fresh and complex – approach to that subject.

But before I get into the new, I’d like to tell a bit about why I was excited to hear Simonds read. As said above, earlier this year I read Warsaw Bikini, published two years ago and which collects three dozen poems, and that’s really what got me going about her writing. A few excerpts from those poems will serve, I think, to show some of what I find so interesting about Simonds’ poetry.

The first poem in Warsaw Bikini is titled “I Serengetti You” and it begins in media res, and goes in a way that made me stop and read the first stanza again, and then do so again and again, so startling are the images, the language, and the energy. Here it is, a single compound if starting in mid-stride sentence spread over seven lines:
                               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 the flushed cheek,
                              from gill to aorta, renal to fallopian tube
                                              twirling like Mendel’s string bean.
If this is a “Song of Myself” - and I read it as such, although as in Whitman the I, the persona of the poem, should be considered as expansive, a “one” that contains multitudes – then Simonds presents herself here as a – well, what? It’s a rich mix that’s hard to pin down in prose. Intriguing and rollicking, I would say, and a tad dangerous, a magic messenger impulse at the edge emotion cross-species internal organ thought-science spirit-creature a mindful woman with mind full of mystery adventure and yes of course don’t forget Mendel’s string bean twirling. In short, these are words of a poet for whom I will enthusiastically turn the pages, and go forth wheresoever she may write me to come.

If I were to put Simonds’ lively confidence, humor and self-awareness into a small capsule of lines, then I think it would be these, lifted – probably decontextualized too – from “One Billion And One, My New Favorite Number,” another Warsaw Bikini poem:
                  . . . The moon has
her little ways, so why can’t I?


“. . . The moon has / her little ways, so why can’t I?”

I can’t think of any good answer for why Simond’s shouldn’t have her little ways, and the spirit of those ways continually enlivens her poetry. This is a spirit with much openness, confidence and weird-wonderfulness, of the kind that just sings in the following lines from yet another great Warsaw Bikini poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Papiers”:
                            . . . What’s next, century?
Give it to me. I am ready to climb your Rockies,

to wrap the Vitamin A liver in aluminum foil
and wear the snow paw of the polar bear
so no one else can touch it.
This desire and demand for whatever time and events may bring delights with its surprising combinations (how about that image in the first line after the double-space from the world of cooking and nutrition!?). Especially mind-stopping and heart-blowing in this regard– as my illustration below above reflects – is Simonds’ that final statement here of what she is ready to do, an assertion that’s full of magic and a special sense of uniqueness and purpose:


“. . . and wear the snow paw of the polar bear / so no one else can touch it.”

But there is in Simonds’ poetry another dominant energy, one very different than the kind reflected in these excerpts so far presented. This other energy similarly stems from an acute awareness and sensitivity, but is situated in anxiety, depression, doubt, deep concern, and almost despair, both about herself and the world at large. This is perhaps a necessary flip-side to Simonds’ almost wild openness and confidence, and while it often is disturbing or sad, it equally engages our readerly attention.

Consider, for example, the poem “The America You Learn From (A Poem For Grocery Workers).” In its first section Simonds describes, more than once, doing a “jig”and imagines herself as a kind of Houdini, cuffed-chained-and-straitjacketed beneath San Francisco Bay who via the undulations of her “jellyfish brain” regurgitates the keys that will permit escape.

However, this more-or-less celebratory and confident tone explicitly and emphatically shifts in the poem’s second section, as Simonds first castigates and questions herself, then takes a brutally honest inventory of where she’s at and what she sees. It’s extremely powerful, and here it is in its entirety:
                      Enough!
        What am I talking about? I have no house.
                      I am entirely minimum wage. I am one
hundred percent punch in
        and out, sandbags under the eyes
        live from cage to cage – the ocean tides wet my
                      dog leash long esophagus
        hooked to the neck of the moon howls
        hey Missy England, it’s all the rage and
                      —thumbs up, Abu Gharib


“live from cage to cage – the ocean tides wet my / dog leash long esophagus /
hooked to the neck of the moon howls /
hey Missy England, it’s all the rage and /
—thumbs up, Abu Gharib

These lines, this poetry, disturbs, or should, with its depiction of a tied down and trapped, limiting, jumbled, and cruel world, personally and geo-politically.

Equally disturbing and sobering, and showing even more clearly the self-critical perspective that is a part of Simonds’ poetry, are the following lines, which comprise the first half of “Parable That Takes Place In Little Nathaniel’s Closet”:
Just when you throw up
your hands

and say “I’m really a horrible
person,” there’s an-

other selfsame self that
assures you you are in-
deed more horrible
than previously suspected.

How dis-
proportionate!
This excerpt, in addition to what it says, also shows that Simonds can flat-out write poetry. Look first at the opening couplet:
Just when you throw up
your hands
The phrase in its entirety describes an universal gesture of frustration, one perfectly appropriate to the self-criticism that follows. But before the phrase is completed, Simonds via how or where she breaks the line brings in rather directly a sickening emesis “you throw up” that sets up and underscores the nauseating self-critical observations that follow.

And with regard to the writing consider as well the hyphenated (and double-spaced) “an // other” that straddles the second and third stanzas. By that clever move Simonds shows, right there on the page, the separate parts of the self that’s central to her poem. Simonds makes her point again about the double or multi-faceted self via the almost back-to-back repetition in “selfsame self” (emphasis added) and then does it again, in the next line, through her odd-looking (but grammatically correct) repetition “you you.”

Another neat piece of poetry takes place in the next linebreak, which also features a split word: “in- / deed” permits Simonds to suggest that sometimes it’s an action (“deed”) that reveals our awfulness to ourselves.

And how about the line-break (and split word) in the concluding couplet in the excerpt above? “How dis-” it begins, and each time I see that I expect the hyphenated word to conclude with “gusting!” or “appointing!,” either of which– an expression of revulsion or frustration – would be an understandable reaction to either the thought that we are actually more horrible than we think, or the idea that we actually think that kind of thought about ourselves.

But Simonds here does not go for the obvious but instead surprises with the more analytical but entirely accurate “dis- / proportionate.” The term suggests I think the distance she feels, that we all feel, between our limits and failures and expectations, and at the same time (via the linebreak and thus the standalone “proportionate”) also suggests that the feeling of horribleness is exactly attuned to an inner state.

The final half of “Parable That Takes Place In Little Nathaniel’s Closet” comprises five couplets, and massively reinforce the sense of hyper lack of self-esteem and associated discomfort that lacerates through the opening lines. The concluding ten lines present a nightmarish vision in which yet another figure from one’s interior – “a nuisance ghost / dressed up as grandpapa” – gets recognized as yet another “you,” one who before receding announces “‘you see you’re worse than me.’” Here, the self-critical self-doubt and condemnation repeatedly mirrors itself, and with no alternative in sight, the emotional and mental state depicted has never had a more convincing, haunting, and disturbing presentation.


“. . . ‘you see you’re worse than me.’”

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I walked into Simonds’ reading two Saturdays ago with all the above in mind, and as you can imagine, my excitement was extreme. As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’d just received her new chap, Made from Scratch, and the thought of fresh poems, new to my eyes, excited me even more. I went to the reading alone, and singleton in social scenes that I can be, began reading the book in the noisy wine bar while waiting for the reading to begin.

Made from Scratch is a heck of a rich title, ain’t it? Words scrawled on (scratched into) paper, I think of, maybe even Sumerians centuries ago, writing with sticks in dried mud. Or Made from Scratch as in created with but a small amount of cash, and/or quickly. Or arising from a wound. And/or, of course, the title suggests there is nothing in it that is pre-prepared or canned; everything’s fresh. Yes, I think it’s all that, and probably more.

Because Made from Scratch may not be, probably will not be, widely available given that it was published and distributed by Simonds herself (it’s not listed on her website; she kindly sent me one after I offered to buy a copy). Presumably, some of its poems will be included in Simonds’ next full-length collection, Mother Was A Tragic Girl, to be published in 2012 by Cleveland State Press.

In the meantime, the poems I discuss below – those which hit me especially deep when I heard her read them Saturday before last, and/or when I read them in the chap itself over the last two weeks – are all available on-line (links are given here, although sometimes in slightly different versions than now published).

“The Battle of Horseshoe Bend” is one of the more memorable poems in the chap, and it is, in its own way, one of several that concern having a child. I write “in its own way” because Simonds says in the poem’s first line that she “was going to write a poem about giving birth” but a few stanzas later says that instead the poem is about something else. However, despite that disavowal, there is plenty about giving birth in the poem, including almost immediately a mention of “merconium, vernix” – and you do know those terms, yes?–





– and can you please tell when you last saw those terms back-to-back, or at all, in a poem? Until someone proves me wrong, I’ll answer “never” or “most probably never” and that’s fairly incredible given the universality of these human phenomena. There’s also here “the flushed cheek of labor, how hard it is / to piss afterwards / how hard it is just to walk / to the bathroom.”) which seem to me other very salient details not often mentioned in poetry. Simonds’ poem, to me, ought to win an award just for bringing these terms into it.

But – and remember, “The Battle of Horseshoe Bend” is a poem about birth that Simonds “was going to write” – there’s also plenty else that comes into the poem, including cubix zirconium, “the cyclonic energy of / Andrew Jackson,” “government cheese, rent, debt,” “steam off the Georgia swamp on my / to work at 6am, where the egret transfixes the grass,” and the Sand Grain Plantation. The final line asserts that we’ve just read a “Poem that will never exist” and I suppose it doesn’t, but of course it does. Click here, if you please, to give it a read.

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Another poem read by Simonds from Made from Scratch (its the final one in the chap) again concerns having a child – actually, it reaches back to the moment of conception – and is evocatively titled, “Landscape Made From Egg and Sperm.” It’s 50 lines long, set in Yosemite, addressed directly to her son (“. . . you / were conceived here, Ezekial, fifty / feet off the Trail of / Broken Ankles”), and was published in Poetry this past summer (please click here to read).

Here are the poem’s final twenty-one lines, an excerpt that begins with a tremendous speculative meditation on the inception of a life, and then opens into an equally, maybe even more tremendous meditation on what such an inception may, or may not, signify:
                    I imagine the second
                    before you took, before
                    the cells began to split,
                    before that flint
                     was struck, before the dna
                    began to twist,
                               that a colorless emptiness
                                      suddenly inverted
                    and told the world that, he too,
                                      once had a mother.

                                     But there is
                                      no nest of leaves. Nothing
                    stops. The clock in the glacier
                      still ticks above us
                          and on our skin
              there were enormous ants, the segments
                                       of their bodies
                                       like black droplets of paint
                                       pushed very close
                                       against each other
                      but still not touching, yet
                                       taking their work with them—
                                       taking away their dirt world .
Simonds briefly discusses and then recites “Landscape Made From Egg and Sperm” on a recent Poetry podcast (click here, start the audio, then jump to 8:00 minutes in). She comments:
. . . the idea behind the poem is that we make these children and they’re everything to us and yet in the grand scheme of things nothing. It’s unfair to see them as the extreme special exception yet at the same time it’s unfair not to. So when you have children you are put into this sort of terrifying position.
I believe this ambivalence, the dichotomy between the frightening difficulty of coming to terms with that which is everything and nothing, must be particularly acute for a new mother. Simonds’ courage here, in the telling of her feeling, is inspiring. This is not at all a simple binky, lullaby, and skylarks singing view. I’ll never forget – these images locked in as soon as she read them aloud two Saturdays ago – the key phrases in the poem’s final lines, which provide incredible mental pictures of the big and little wheels that turn in our world even as the miracle of life takes place between us:


“The clock in the glacier / still ticks above us . . . ”


“there were enormous ants, the segments / of their bodies / like black droplets of paint”

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Another poem from Made from Scratch read here in San Francisco by Simonds, “Solipsism As Maternal Instinct,” also – as its title directly suggests – concerns having a child. This poem is also available on line in an earlier, and slightly different, version (click here).

The idea in the poem’s title is provocative: motherhood involves an inherent or unavoidable tendency to believe that the care, concern, and love of and given to one’s child, or maybe even the mother’s mind, is the only thing that can be certain to exist, and that all the rest, the external world and others, is unknowable and possibly an illusion. Here again I can well imagine how this might happen, even while acknowledging I can’t really ever say.

The poem itself, in the first four of its five sections, presents a kind of yin and yang of the experience of Simonds in the months after giving birth. “For a while, everyone loved me” she begins, and then Simonds describes her confidence, her certainty in her beauty and the joy in her body, how she “nursed my child in public” and “It was like my body / was one big eye, opening and shutting.” That last image, in particular is incredible, a snapshot of a fully expansive flesh-and-blood consciousness.

But the euphoria does not last. The come-down, the change – it takes place about two-thirds through the poem – still kicks my gut, just as it did when I first heard Simonds read it, and just as it does every time I’ve read it since. It stuns the most in the fourth stanza, which begins with a simple statement regarding a physical change and then things rapidly get a lot worse:
            Then my milk dried up. My husband
              failed his paternity
              test and left. (We have not seen him since
              July 18, 2009 so if anyone
                 knows where he is, please
              email me. $200 reward.) Then all my friends
                     followed suit, like Annie who
                                who left a note on my doorstep
                              that said “Can you
                   please return my DVD of Beaches
                                and those onesies I gave
                                you. I’m pregnant again.”
Of course, I don’t really know how much of this is actually true, particularly the (going old school here) Peyton Place like or (even older school) Faulkner-ish details of the presumed father discovering he’s not, then abandoning the relationship. The specificity of the parenthetical facts – the date it all went down – suggest that it’s all real, and the request for help and posted reward there are either the saddest things I’ve read in a poem in a good long time or a twisted stab of humor (or maybe both). The rest of the other details in the stanza above, concerning the friend who asks for things back also seems very real. The sense of a mother isolated, with nothing else, is profound.

The final stanza first presents and then concerns an image of Simonds’ child playing in exersaucer, a modern day baby walker and activity center, in which the infant/toddler stands in the center of ring atop which are plenty of on-board toys, often with sound effects:
              My son jumps up and down in the second-
                        hand exersaucer that I’ve set up in
                                   the living room.
                                                               The air is composed
                                of beaks and hooves, squawks,
                                                neighs, unraveling DNA.
              “You’re brilliant,” these plastic
              farm animals say, their primary colors
                                made in God’s image.
Simonds’ focus here on, the return of her focus to, the child corresponds to, is further proof of, the “solipsism = maternal instinct” equation of the poem’s title. Against all the desolation, mom’s reality is found watching, and thinking of, her son.

But you know what? I myself find a reality, an inspired one, in this final image. No doubt my response is not the equal of Simonds as mother, but still I insist it is strong. While the isolation presented in the first excerpt above is profound, so too is the affirmation and optimism in this final stanza.

The shift here from desolation to a kind of ebullience seems a perfect example of a key quality of Simond’s poetry, which Andrew Joron (in the afterword to this year’s updated edition of The Sun At Night, his terrific survey of transformations of surrealism in American poetry over the last approximately half-century) describes as a “fierce and rampant negativity that suddenly veers sideways to display a pataphysics of redemption, wickedly wise.”

I certainly felt a kind of redemption, along with affirmation and much else, when I heard Simonds read her final stanza aloud. It may seem goofy, but I too feel in the described sounds of her kid’s toys the same can-it-be, yes-it-is message of brilliance that she hears. This possibility or vision of affirmation and hope may seem simple, but against the emptiness that preceded it, and because of the freshness of the image – the sounds of “plastic / farm animals” on an “exersaucer” who ever thought of that, come on?!! – I find it complex, utterly convincing, and unforgettable. A well known tradition asserts that “a little child shall lead [us],” and here I say it’s true, at least as presented by the creative and skilled hand of Simonds in this poem.


“‘You’re brilliant,’ these plastic / farm animals say . . .”

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1 comment:

Meg said...

Wow this is truly grand. And who would have thought...exersaucer.

Beeyootiful. Well chosen.