Issue IX, Volume IV : May 2013
The Way We Live
by Burt Kimmelman
Dos Madres Press, 2011
Reviewed by Kip Zegers
Book Review Editor's Note: The reviewer was introduced to the poet’s work via a book of critical essays about George Oppen. Oppen’s influence can be seen in the poetry of Burt Kimmelman, as reviewer Kig Zegers points out in his review of The Way We Live.
I first encountered Burt Kimmelman while making my way through a collection of essays in Big Bridge on the work of George Oppen. I agreed with, and noted, Kimmelman’s sense of Oppen as working from “astonishment, awe, and perhaps … gratitude” for the physical world that he encounters. In reading Kimmelman’s latest book of poems, The Way We Live, I hear, in a voice more personal than Oppen’s, those three emotions. And a poetics that allows them life.
The book’s lead poem, “June Planting Flowers,” grows out of the return home of a grown daughter. The speaker is encountering her as she works in the family’s garden. The three beat lines, with their careful attention to controlling the pace of the poem, set out the conditions of the daughter’s return, the difficult city life she has left for the day, and the beauty she is creating with her work. Threaded into this is the emotion that the speaker is holding back. He is seeing deep into time:
“…I say how
lovely the backyard looks
and will not let on her
sitting there, at the edge
of the grass, is what I
Even though all 5 lines are enjambed, I hear half pauses on “looks” and especially on “edge.” The daughter is, in the father’s eyes, at the edge of more than the lawn, of the family she has come back to. All this the father sees and sees and does not want to stop seeing, for not only the flowers are lovely, and precious is the chance to see what is unfolding before him, all that he is at the edge of. Yet just as the child had to come in from the dark, there is always a time to stop. “Astonishment, awe and gratitude.”
“Cicadas, Mid July,” another backyard poem, grows out of the speaker’s rediscovery of familiar facts. Cicadas mark the arrival of heat, and when they fall silent, mark summer’s passing with their silence. Backyard truth. The stir of time. Here ideas grow out of the senses again. The “cicadas do their work” and the ears do their work, and the slowly spinning year settles and unsettles the listener. Sound and the light go down together, “our regret spun in/ the din and the waning of the light.” In this piece, looser and longer lines are at work, and in its close the “n” and “t” sounds control the cadence and stitch the poem shut. And silent.
What I always ask of poetry is that when I go out into the world after reading I am changed. My eyes opened. My ears remembering what is possible. The every day made to step forward in its importance. In “Summer, Young Woman by the Westside Drive,” someone has entered the speaker’s field of vision. She is ordinary, talking on her phone, brushing a bush with her hand, the details of the scene building, until her “black dress, swirling,” “her bare/ brown shoulders arms and/legs gather in the/unforgiving light.” The stranger becomes not an erotic object but a life figure, taking it, the harsh light, the “vast heat,” and gathering it. Such an interesting verb. The speaker’s perception here, if I do not misread, is of an unconscious taking of what the world, on a hot afternoon, presents, how the body becomes a center, humanizing and absorbing the heavy, impersonal summer weather.
Kimmelman’s title poem, “The Way We Live,” deepens the collection as it observes a burial and works it way slowly to the son intoning Kaddish. The first time through I found myself in a poem that is touching but familiar. The facts of the case have weight. A reader thinks, this poem needs to move beyond seeing. Then the speaker sees the oldest son as he reads, “his voice broken, convulsed/in sorrow, the Hebrew he studied/long ago alive for the first time.” Perception overtakes recording this moment, and this last stanza carries an emotional charge that is partly due to the ceremony it recounts, but due also to perceiving that which brings words to life. The words live in experience, in felt emotion, not in a rabbi’s study. As do all important words: when they matter is when they are alive, and in this poem’s moment, words rise to what is required of them.
This is a notion that takes further shape two poems forward in The Way We Live, “The Deception.” The poem is an encounter with a painting by Giorgio Morandi. The speaker enters the picture, “easily,” then realizes that the artist means to “discomfit us/ yet we surrender ourselves/to these sure shapes.” What has appeared has mystery. Its shapes are “simple,” “arranged,” “opaque,” “mute,” the painting is a “made word,” and the artist has a “stubborn craft.” The speaker surrenders to what makes him uneasy. This is not unlike “The Way We Live,” a “made world” that we enter easily until the focus suddenly shifts from mourning, from he who is mourned, and finds purchase in the great pain that allows crucial words to be “alive for the first time.”
As this book accounts for a “made world” in painting, it also looks at art to open up “the business of the poet,” in “At a Willem de Kooning Show with Michael Heller.” In this piece, the speaker is struggling to keep up with his friend’s monologue about de Kooning. Then, out in the city, rain, the energy of spring in the street, the crush of traffic, the speaker thinks of traffic’s “commerce – not unlike, really,/ ‘the business of the poet.’” This last is from George Oppen: “It is the business of the poet/’To suffer the things of the world/And to speak them and himself out.’” The speaker tries to see what his friend sees. but this is not a great success. He can see “the wild spring,” in New York, its traffic “bellying along the wet/swath of dark asphalt.” He is “speaking out” the bold strokes of the painter, the life of city streets, and the push of movement. Wondering at Oppen’s use of “suffer” and “speak,” one sees a connection. I take it to be openness. We speak what we are open to, not unlike the son standing at his father’s grave, or here two poets in the world.
Kimmelman moves the reader out of his book with “Arctic Tern.” Its final lines speak for the poet and for poetry. The poem begins with facts about the tern and its faint connection with below, with the ground or the sea, its finding its place aloft. The poem begins by pushing forward with trochees, it has pace, then the lines loosen and beat, stanza flowing into stanza without a break, going for a dozen lines without a full stop, like the bird that flies and flies. Then the poems stops as it shows how the male stops to feed the mate that it will keep for life. This is a “rite beyond gravity,” the poet thinks, “Yet flying must be an act of /solitude, an unfed longing.” The poem pays attention to the tern. No symbolic bird is this. The “astonishment, awe, and gratitude” I have found in these poems is only possible because the bird and its life are real. Its way of being is real. Its endless flights are real, both in the world and in the poet’s imagination, which is also real and is, I take it, the source of the “unfed longing” the poet shares with the tern. It is the victory of Kimmelman’s The Way We Live.