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Madeline Tiger reviews

Somehow (Poems)
by Burt Kimmelman

62 pp. Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2005. US $12.95. ISBN 0-9759197-0-9 paper
Available via
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This review is 2,500 words
or about 5 printed pages long

Light out of shadow

Somehow achieves a rare purity. Few contemporary poets so gracefully demonstrate classic notions of what the practice of poetry must be: Kimmelman’s work is carefully wrought, with concision, focus, and the rhythm of musical composition — methodic principles that Pound and his ‘modernist’ followers prescribed. However, the effect is immediately lucid —  in gesture and image. The voice is direct, often personal, although perfectly restrained. The deceptively simple  diction is layered, aurally and in connotation; thus, aesthetic and emotional resonance moves behind the lines and carries from poem to poem like a quiet basso profundo.

Even from the opening (title) poem ‘Somehow,’ one can see how seriously Kimmelman takes Pound’s dicta. The first stanzas present the cold air of February and a bird singing ‘into the thin/ early light…’ The fourth stanza continues tracing the bird’s ‘trill/ then another’ …

the branches
empty but for

the red
and blue flecks
incising the

day and
very soon
the riotous

gangs seizing

The careful consideration in the work is obvious — one senses how it comes from long thought and a search for the exact ‘right words.’

The diction is whittled so far down to the purest level of signification  that words are  raised to their most intense hues, as ‘raucous’ and ‘seizing’ are here, after the ‘trill’ in the hollow cold of the first stanzas. Sounds are pressed forward as if by a force, as if by ‘gangs seizing/ territory’. The ominous note of that image echoes in the last stanza, in ‘in this most/ unforgiving/ world…’ Significant words work sharply: incising, riotous, raucous, seizing… unforgiving. Enjambment plays tricks, as with ‘unforgiving/   world…’ Rhythmic suspension matches bird and bird trill, bravado and attack, and the underlying stillness.

Kimmelman employs syllabic metrics, as prosodic challenge, playing on ideas of order; but one has to examine ( even vocalize) the syllables of every line to find the metric pattern. At the same time, the poet weaves assonance and consonance schema in a word play that counter-balances, and smoothly masks, the strict count-down of syllables. ‘Ordinary speech’ operates consistently, as well, in the vibrant pull over the metric regularity. The ancient way of counting out lines thus provides a bass for these original, modernist  inventions.

It is tempting to map poetic ancestry. Kimmelman’s verse refers one to ancient practices; it also connects with 20th Century American innovations, as in the work of  William Carlos Williams — his quick-flash images, his experimental ‘foot,’ his natural ‘snapshots.’ The fleeting gaiety of Williams’ ‘The Locust Tree in Flower,’ for example (‘Among/ of/ green/…’), is given a knowing nod in ‘Somehow’; but the Kimmelman poem indicates a colder setting for the bravado of birdsong trilling in ‘the thin/ early/ light’. It continues to cut deeper, in the ‘riotous’ crowding of bird sounds — until it names ‘…this most/ unforgiving/ world’ where the birdsong persists. Then, in a singular finale, the poem ends with a kind of syntactical joke: the speaker declares, as if only in reference to birdsounds, that ‘insistence/ is all there is,’ and one hears how the sound insists on the sense! As Galway Kinnell managed to do in his famous aphorism on being — ‘Whatever is is is what I want/ … But that’ — Kimmelman makes a concrete ‘thing’out of the profoundest abstraction. The final fillip of the poem  makes a music out of a philosophical proposition.

So much, of poetic and epistomological history, of nature and season, of world-view and sound, is compressed into the twenty-seven brief lines of ‘Somehow’, with significant silences between them, around them, and after. This piece heralds the triumph of the entire collection.

The next poem, ‘Sol Lewitt’s Double Pyramid,’ plays on an art form (Lewitt’s) of minimalist repute but multiple aspects. The poet juxtaposes the Lewitt piece inside the Whitney Museum gallery with the mundane winter scene outside the museum walls. The viewer is deftly subsumed in what is seen, so that a concern for the ‘undaunted’ nature of art, leads to a personal observation: ‘lucky art… and we,/ too…’ The poet identifies with every detail. Each line has five syllables. Every item has equivalent value. The poem creates a means of recognition — of world and art and self, of object and artist. There is a shining at the apex of this verbal pyramid. ‘…lucky art…/ shining like the sun,/ undaunted — and we,/ too, from below the/ summit…’ The lines after the apex  shine quietly below the images.

In poem after poem, the diction rivets: in ‘Standing Stones,’ from an archeological site in the Outer Hebrides, aural patterns heighten the objective imagery: ‘…stones standing… /  found or quarried, raw and …in their perfect array… the unforgiving crags…’ Assonance and inverted internal rhymes often mark original images, as in the center of this poem: ‘…I think of / the great night sky, the moon/ without a cloud nearby/ and silver picks of stars…’ The movement from long to short vowels, sharpens into ‘silver picks…’ and sighs on the final long ‘a’ of ‘stars.’

Many of Kimmelman’s endings offer stunning surprises, more so by understatement: here, after the rough tactile imagery of the ‘Standing Stones,’ comes a turn: he describes the stone crags

…rough to the touch, having
made a space where time, a
mist, can come among us,
and then leave us in tears.

When a poet is deliberative and sparing of sentiment, such moments of emotional revelation are powerful. Kimmelman’s series of poems in honor of his daughter growing up are like that. The lines delineate stages of life without cliché, conveying tenderness exchanged, with no excess. The restraint is telling.

The poems in this volume also provide surprise through masterful lineation and noun work. According to theories of Olson and the objectivists, and exemplified by the ideograph(s) of ancient Chinese poems, the single word can contain ranges of both noun and verbal meaning. Consider one haiku from the four in Somehow: not conventional  in word-count formality, it adheres to the deeper Japanese insistence on juxtaposition of seasonal images:

Blackbird, valleys, hills. Hawk
great circles. Redbird

The objective nouns take on active life. The lineation makes the ‘great circles’ do what they describe. And the noun branch (here transformed into both participle and gerund) becomes a bird’s action. As well as conflating noun and verb, there is also the merging of bird, branch, tree, green leaf, and sky; and of brilliant colors and light. In fact, the word ‘light’ serves as adjective,  noun, and verb, simply. No small achievement in a spread of (essentially) three lines!

The work is often about the object and the speaker, the scene and the song. There is an assertion and a surprise in the third haiku: ‘The poem sings also… what song it might have been.’ Before? After? Do we consider this with ‘the song of the blackbird’? Or in light of the Yeatsian credo about the ‘dancer and the dance’? Or, more personally, every poet’s search for his true song? All of these. The fourth haiku ends with ‘Each two trees a gateway.’ No need to ask where that gateway leads, but all goes back to the song — of birds, and, somehow, of the poet.

No wonder that these images are followed by work that considers the metaphoric ‘mirror’ of self in the cosmos: a few central lines in ‘The Assumption of Matter’ describe how we ‘come to feel more and more    / our clinging selves/ in the perfect stars.’ (What a strange reference to MacBeth!)

As if talking across the dark, the poet utters a simple prayer to light and to an admired colleague. Words serve double functions: one feels ‘our clinging selves/ in the perfect stars,’ but also, through the extended metaphor honoring William Bronk, he recognizes the great void of billions of years, and then, the balance between the ‘light’ and the (‘welcome’) darkness. The poem does not define existentialism: it is! Thus it enacts Keats’ theory of ‘negative capability’: there is no seeking after certainty;  there is only the great, balancing recognition of what is.

Another short piece, ‘The Argument,’ plays with figure-and-ground, shifts in context, human relationships, and paradox. It presents human remoteness by a few lines as if spoken (or thought) on a subway: ‘…When/ will we/   see/ each other/ again?…’ ; but in another stroke comes an image of ultimate intimacy: after the word ‘home,’ the imagery is of  ‘full/ knowledge, your/ tongue/ in my mouth, one/ of us inside/ the other.’

All the poems display tautness, inherent in form and diction, and a pull, with dramatic innuendo. In ‘The Ox Pull’ these methods serve onomatopoeically. Great physical power is conveyed in  simple lines, with daring spaces. From the center of the poem:

. . .
The night 


not simply for 

bruised flesh,
the weight of it …       

and the poem ends with

the brutal struggle

to possess
fire and bear

the beating heart

in hand.

It is hard to describe the intensity of Kimmelman’s lines without extensive quoting. The spacing serves so powerfully, and the diction works all the more intensely thereby. Otherwise, why would a line like ‘the beating heart’ seem so fresh and passionate and painstakingly placed?

Kimmelman masters double entendre. Summer country scene: ‘…the leaves/ bend     / to the window and fold/ the house in. Mountains and sun. I fold/   the blankets…’ The lines gently plays on the meanings of ‘fold’ and ‘enfold,’ the noun sense also. Even the emphasis on the adverb ‘in’ (usually a preposition) creates the gesture that ‘fold’ makes so gracefully. Soon, after ten short lines (and many spaces) down, ‘…Under/ your eyelids/ night unfolds…’, such an apt image continues the changes playing on one word. ‘Fold’ encloses as it smooths, opens as it closes, reveals as it covers, and encloses all as if all is in-volved (as in a Hopkins ‘inscape’.)

‘The Valentine’s Day’ uses sprung rhythm and alliteration much in the manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins, although he is not Kimmelman’s primary model. It is significant to see the mastery of rhythm and sound here, as in ‘Warm birds in the withering / light, bland/ hollow in the heart, stone, pride and food…’ Elsewhere the reader will again find well-placed uses of spondee and compression.

However informed by the past, or influenced by more recent formal traditions, the verse moves in contemporary idioms; it usually rises from somewhere between meditation and speech, between thought and sound. Like the Chinese Odes that Pound admired, they link and incorporate both music and painting. Often they seem to want reciting; but at the same time they are quiet and bemused. They are beyond haiku (though there are references to that practice).

A major theme of this book is enlightenment, or the physical version — bringing to light out of shadow; as in finding the spring bird’s song at the end of winter; as in seeing sunlight in the cold day; as in sensual kissing after estrangement; as in words illuminating cosmic mysteries. A tiny poem mid-volume encapsulates this theme: in ‘Sidewalk Café, Spring’ the poet presents sun and sparrow coming from shadow, and then, with no conjunction, announces, ‘we gather in light.’ Significantly, the ‘in’ is (again) used doubly — as preposition, ‘in light,’ and as the adverbial part of the verb ‘gather (in)’. Thus, there is a gathering IN of light, a taking possession of light, as well as a coming together in the light — so aptly put that a reader barely realizes how many ways she or he is experiencing the tiny line.

This poem is a companion to the next, ‘Late October Rain,’ concerned with the covering up of ground in wet leaves. One of the many delicate pleasures of this volume is how well the poems are sequenced, how much companionship they make out of seasonal segues and natural paradox. ‘…in the dead/ cold of winter/ a bird/ has begun/ to sing. O when/ Does spring/ begin its/ slowest ascent?’ No answer necessary: here is the beginning, in the song. Again, as in other pieces, the autumn poem uses quietude, fine enjambment and spacing, to convey the weight of the branches, the dying process. And why the superlative form on slowest? Because of the urgency of the speaker, because of the dragged sense of waiting through the dark, because of how long it seems to take. ‘Slowest ascent’ is harsh, hard in saying, yearning toward.

The titles  in this collection suggest the vast abstractions of intellect, but one after another the poems pin-point a writer’s ‘entrance to the exact premonition’ (Frost’s expression for how to enter a poem). There is much theory to be presumed from the collection, but it is brought through objectivist particulars, it is ‘ne’er so well expressed.’ No excess of language or sentiment. Careful order. It is made new.

‘Self-Portrait’ is perhaps the central poem of the volume. It announces the poet’s ‘…gesture/ from the other/ side of these words.’ The speaker presents himself as he presents his work, ‘this gesture…’ Poetry as ‘gesture’ comes of silence. And it comes out of the long tradition which this poet reveres. It also comes out of a void, a great unidentified silence, and a yearning, as do all gestures of love. ‘I lean toward you,’ the poem begins, in an effort at  communication and identification, ‘as if to say/ here I am…’ The speaker presents himself from before language, despite language, and through language. The great paradox.

Kimmelman is a medieval scholar; he writes about Chaucer and a long line of poets who have followed. He speaks for them, but his own work is a quiet, passionate gesture from before and after all the words that often try to convey what this little piece of work, shaped simply, against  silence, does.

The last half of this collection presents two sequences — — one tracing the poet’s daughter’s growth from birth to adolescence. The other is the set of monthly image poems, ‘Late in a Slow Time,’ that appeared as a broadside from Backwoods in 2004. These are pleasing series; they exhibit the attentiveness and painterly talents that highlight Kimmelman’s work. There are the gentle surprises in diction and in revelations of feeling, the cameo scenes of parent-and-child, in the first; and the study of time and space through the landscapes of the second. As ever, the language is so careful that — as Williams said should happen — the poem ‘dances above reality,’ playing the ‘music of ordinary speech’ in its rhythms. I have enjoyed these sequences, and have reviewed the second one, but am herewith more concerned with the earlier poems in this collection. Not only do they vivify Pound’s often quoted principles, but they are a unique set of post-objectivist inventions: they are artistically layered and provocative, yet immediately accessible; the ‘gesture’ is clear, however subtle. The pieces seem to come together naturally. The collection is a well coordinated display of talent and devotion from this new ancient poet.

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