EILEEN TABIOS Engages
The Way We Live by Burt Kimmelman
(Dos Madres Press, Loveland, OH, 2011)
Burt Kimmelman’s The Way We Live is a slim book of 25 poems and presented in a lovely understated way: its elegant font and a cover with a pale blue and white palette encourage a sense of delicacy.
The book’s physical impression is not immediately contradicted by the poems for there is no bombast here but just a calm, almost peaceful presence. Just before the fifth poem, though, the combined effect of the poems (I read the book’s poems as presented in one sitting) ceased to evoke delicacy or the ethereal. Because I began to see so clearly the images being delineated. Notwithstanding the calmness in tone, the images are so vivid they are palpable. Let’s return to the opening poem whose effect, for me, was delayed but once mentally grasped refused to stop resonating:
Jane Planting Flowers
She tilts her head to view
the white impatiens she
holds in her hand, the light
of the afternoon caught
in them—thinking where they
belong among blue and
yellow petals on their
stems newly rooted in
black loam. She has come home
as id to arrange our
garden this spring—having
left her stray-dog artist’s
life in the city, for
a time, its car alarms,
gritty sidewalks and shared
apartments. I say how
lovely the backyard looks
and will not let on her
sitting there, at the edge
of the grass, is what I
mean—this sunny day, in
the shade of our maple
tree from which she used to
swing, years ago, until
it was too dark to see.
It’s a wonderful way to begin the collection—sight moves outwards, then inwards to understand that what is visibly presented out there does not capture hidden longings.
The fifth poem, referencing a 1941 incident in the Warsaw Ghetto, simply affirms the dark depths existing in life, or that we, as the poet writes in “Big Storm” are like the birds on “a / tenuous perch.”
The strong imagery would not be possible, I suspect, without the poet’s own keen eye that so effectively teases out the possible ramifications of what are visible—this, for one example, is from the title poem “The Way We Live” where the Kaddish (a Jewish prayer used to mourn the death of a close relative) evokes the poem’s speaker from long ago when he studied Hebrew as a child:
The rabbi, in English, rehearses
this man’s life, his generosity
and laughter, how resourceful he was,
the good husband and father he was.
Named Pesach, which became Paul, he spent
his first Passover away from home
on a troop ship in the Pacific,
about to land on Guadalcanal.
The rabbi tells us of the unique
kindness we perform in attending
a funeral, a mitzvah the dead
do not know, which they cannot repay.
At last the sons intone the Kaddish,
the older, his voice broken, convulsed
in sorrow, the Hebrew he studied
long ago alive for the first time.
This is all to say, Kimmelman makes it look easy—these poems that encourage such gentle gems as
Cutting board, knife, bread
crumbs in dawn light—she
stood and ate beside
the kitchen sink, then
got back into bed.
But the layers of nuance to these poems require far more than gentleness. Indeed, the ars poetica may be captured in the quote by George Oppen used as an epigraph to one of the poems (“After Willem de Kooning Show with Michael Heller”):
…It is the business of the poet
“To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out.”
The surface of Kimmelman’s poems are not in clamour, do not look for attention. But Kimmelman does “the business of the poet” so well that the reader’s attention nonetheless is engaged. And deserved.
Eileen Tabios reveals something about herself in ARDUITY'S interview about what's hard about her poetry. Her just-released poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Amazon Hall of Famer reviewer Grady Harp. Due out in 2015 will be her second "Collected Poems" project; while her first THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, her forthcoming INVEN(S)TORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com