Thursday, December 14, 2017

Book Review: Further Problems with Pleasure (2017) Sandra Simonds.

Univ. of Akron, $14.95 trade paper (72p) ISBN 978-1-62922-059-8   

Perhaps the highest praise I can say about Sandra Simonds’ Further Problems With Pleasure (Univ. of Akron Press, 2017) is that it gains deeper resonance on re-reading in ways that can seduce me off of Facebook, get me off an ideological high horse (an occupational hazard), and make me want to respond in kind rather than trying to write a review that will inevitably water down the book’s intensities, and be accused of mansplaining.

Assessing any book of poetry either involves moving from the specific lines and poems to attempt some generalized summary words that could characterize the overall feeling of “book” or taking a theme, and then picking a line or stanza that allegedly illustrates it. Both ways have their pitfalls. Publisher’s Weekly is of little help, with its reductive overemphasis on its Gothic elements, and its claim that Simonds does nothing more than “reports the damage amid the ruins!” Perhaps, from the cold eye of “reason” that’s true, but I find a transformative power in these poem’s unfurling futurity that goes far beyond “profane observations competing for attention with declarative assertions on the absurdities of love and literature and 21st-century living.”  I feel wisdom (for instance, “the absence of sadness/ may create bitterness” 61). Other words (meant non-pejoratively) that first come to my mind are: experienced, brilliant, warm, vibrant, alive, present, intimate, generative, generous, passionate, anti-puritanical, gender-bending, fun, chastising, resilient, workaholic, righteous, conversational, self-mocking, romantic, theatrical and sublime equipment for living…..And  I’m sure I’m missing better ones, both denotatively and connotatively.

At least PW can acknowledge (albeit begrudgingly) that Simonds’ “speakers self-govern even when the world grows murky or difficult,” but, God, I hate this reviewers’ tone. He (I’m assuming it’s a he) makes it sound like Romper Room or Mr. Rogers or something---not spousal abuse!

While many books of poetry begin slowly with shorter poems, and tend to time-release some heavy central themes (“their darkness”) that don’t become clearer, on first reading, until enough details accrue maybe around page 30, Sandra Simonds’ Further Problems With Pleasure jumps right in (in media res as it were), with a 5 page (long-lined) poem to establish the ethos, logos, and pathos of a speaker trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship (without revealing too many details):

                    “The one trick I’ve always fallen back on is to make a man think/
                                      he’s the one rejecting me
                      But it was so quiet in your room
                                       even if you had long books written by evil men…(1))

And despite, or perhaps because of the title (as in the spirit of, let’s just indulge the urge to say “Poetry Is Stupid And I Want To Die” ---or “This stuff is poison and It’s Gonna Fuck Up My Shit”--and get it out of the way), the poetry may yet have the power to get her out of this destructive relationship, even if she has to identify with Keats’ urn, the bride and the mother, to do it.  Imagination becomes a weapon and a survival tool. To escape a situation, or to transform it? Does poetry have the ability to make an abusive “partner” disappear? If inspiration can’t come, can you force a sustained poetic trance state with hard work? This is a faith tested relentlessly throughout……

We are also introduced to her sinuous, capacious, long-lines, which afford her an ability to navigate a wide range of moods and modes about as close to prose as you can be and still be poetry---(and not, I must add, “barely poetry” for its proximity to prose)…..On a technical level, her muscular lines remind me of a device Marjorie Perloff loved in O’Hara’s poetry: “I know how to wash her mellow hair glides like a swan.” Despite the conversational elegance (classy, not gaudy) of Simonds styles and/or voices, she writes in “Poem For Joe,” that “They said my poems/ were a mess” (31), and, indeed, many strict formalists, minimalists or puritanical abstractionists may feel threatened by these poems, but on repeated readings, it becomes clearer that even the most seemingly meandering and flowing poems have a well-crafted structure in which words and themes that may have gotten lost in the fierce devotion to the present circle back with a charming vengeance to shape the poem (trace, for instance, the “career” of the word “mall” in “Fun Clothes: A Gothic”), digging her way out of the strictures of her detractors while finding joy in “the plasma of subjectivity revolving like a ballerina.” (12)

The Title “Fun Clothes: A Gothic” (another maximalist long poem) itself suggests the cosmic, and emotional, balance Simonds’ collection achieves. On one level, it could be usefully compared to Anne Boyer’s recent Garment Against Women (or Cydney Chadwick’s earlier Enemy Clothing) in its elastic feminist performativity that positions itself in relation to the omnipresent hetero male gaze, but this theme is also about embodiment in general, as the poem begins rather abstractly, with no body but the (sublime, and/or repressed) physicality of language:

“Schizophrenia like suds in the afternoon, bubbles and bubbles of the glorious
prism, molds of forensic happenings, and you speak softly in a delectable armory,
          in feathers,
bursts, bras not afraid of being impoverished, afraid, alas, that this disguise will
to human flesh, the underneath in chains that vibrate the invisible soundscape
of deposits, a debt the color of frog skin, how can he hold back the incredible lush
         device that is
the body….(24)[1]

The PW review claims there’s a “frequent parallel between bodily want and a kind of spiritual crisis,” yet their use of the word “parallel” too easily accepts the terms of mind/body dualism that this poem deconstructs, or transcends, as tenor and vehicle switch places in her elaborate conceit that also considers (or constructs) the body’s eroticized relationship to consumerism. On another, overlapping, level, it invites the reader to consider the relationship between reading and writing poetry to the trial and error of clothes (the “lyotard” in this poem could recall O’Hara’s “tight pants”); what, after all, is Ovid’s Metamorphosis but a series of elaborate costume changes, and, in Simonds, as in Ovid, it is not necessarily the “self” that is changing costumes either. Yet, other times it is, as the poem can also be seen as a psychedelic muse poem in which the speaker is not only conjuring a muse, but also considering what it is to be a muse against the backdrop of a patriarchal Euro-poetry tradition in which women are more mused than allowed to muse.

If there’s any possibility juice left in the muse tradition, Simonds milks it for all its worth. The muse tradition becomes especially reinvented in the polyvocal, gender bending “Baudelaire Variations” that spatially occupy the book’s “center.” The “Baudelaire Variations” show that Simonds excels in the shorter, tighter, lyric as much as the longer expansive poems that frame it, and appeals to the suggestive intelligence in many ways. One could say that intimately engaging the 19th Century French “decadent” symbolist affords her access to the seediest sides
of the canonical male (art) psyche that has so often colonized women: how does a 21st century woman respond to, appropriate, and reinvent that (alien) male tradition? In this, these poems could be great fodder for college comparison-contrast literary analysis papers (like Tyehimba Jess’ recent critical appropriations of Berryman’s Dream Songs).

In “The Sick Muse,” for instance, it might seem we could assume the speaker is Simonds herself, invoking (and talking back to) Baudelaire as her muse:
                             “I can’t succumb to you so quickly, but all my verse
                                       pours so easily into the rose love of your urns.
                               I could try to hide it, but the depth is despotic,
                                       and all I really care to do is float on your rhythmic waves” (56)

This kinda reminds me of that D.H. Lawrence poem where he expresses how ridiculous Shakespeare’s themes, plots, and characters are, but how he’s nevertheless drawn to it because of the beauty of the language. Yet it’s also possible that Simonds is not merely criticizing Baudelaire’s emotional extravagances, but to some extent identifying with them in a way that would be difficult to do as a seemingly transparent authentic “I;” who, or what, is saying “I have hurt myself so I become dangerous” and “I wrote you the most brutal love poem love knows” (64)? Or is it a “saying it to keep it from happening” (as Ashbery would put it) kind of catharsis strategy that Simonds is after?

“Fountain of Blood” is certainly dangerous, brutal (and, yes, Gothic) at first:
                                 “Sometimes I want you to bite my neck hard
                                   and let the blood flow down in a fountain, the liquid, rhythmic
                                   and murmuring and eventually I want that blood to hit the little rocks
                                   of your testicles below my wet mouth.” (53)

Yet, this poem ends with a deeper longing: “I want you to open/ your eyes, every fucking night, to this new century.” And, reading her, she makes me feel like there’s a reason to, that, despite the ruins PW says she reports from, Simonds’ poetry is not only a rewrite of Baudelaire, but an improvement over it, a forward-looking beacon amid this “terrible century” (66) and decadent-izing world.

And though “death is never far away” in this collection, neither is love, whether for poetry, language, life, her children, or her fiancĂ©, as in “Poem For Alex” near the end of the book (as if, in a way, for the narratively inclined, the book indeed has the much coveted “happy ending”):

You don’t have to be mysterious
Or buoyant like we were so young but
Now accustomed to manipulating language
The world becomes sweet, malleable and oh look
,,,,,there’s the Minoan snake goddess now
with her ancient explosive powers.”

Perhaps she needed to pass through the violent conflagrations of the love expressed in “The Baudelaire Variations” to achieve the beautiful transformative simplicity of the later poems in this collection. Yet, throughout this book, it is not simply erotic love, nor even self-love (self-as-possibility, possibility-as-self), but a general love for humanity and experience, for instance in “Elysian Fields” she writes, “I’m…not the type to give up/ on other people or the eventual occasions/ for new disasters” (78).

Not that she doesn’t have ample reason to want to give up, especially on the male ideologues and utopian activists that make cameos in this book:

“It’s free love until
        you have to wipe
a baby’s ass,” my friend says
        at dinner talking about
the possibilities
         of a free
love commune.” (22)

“You learned how to spell me in school terrible
     You need to mark every place Faulkner was racist
  And rewrite the novel as erasure.” (27)

It’s not that she doesn’t agree that Faulkner was a racist, and hasn’t herself fought on the front-lines of the anti-racist struggle, but, for Simonds, the obsession with “honor” (in “Spring Dirge” 2) and political self-righteousness can get in the way of, and tyrannize, the transformative powers of poetry. Sure, she explores some deeply political issues in this piece---for instance, how the technocracy can devalue poems, how Social Media is hostile to the more contemplative mode (pg. 76), and the personal can be called political here, but more importantly is the intimate possibility that can potentially speak beyond (or at least between) partisanships---for though Simonds is a poet’s poet in the best sense of the word, it does not come at the expense of an ability to reach a more general reader (she’s not so busy being a poet’s poet that she forgets to be a poet).

Aware that “defending/ pleasure kills it” (90), despair can be a pep-talk (96), throughout this collection Simonds’ employs many imaginative avatars (from the comet in “A Lover’s Discourse” to the nuns in “Our Lady Of Perpetual Help), as well the “via negativa” (the negation of the negation, as well as “negative capability”) to embrace those (people and moods) outcast by society, and find a new beginning in a world in which “wellness” often means “hellness” and reading too much of Blake’s Songs of Innocence may have the power to give you pneumonia (pg. 75, suggesting that the only way to cure the physical illness is to speak with the “wry, disabused” voice of experience that cannot resign to a life of decay and decline, as Jolie Holland would put it, or use loss as an excuse to close off from the world): As Simonds puts it in “The Elysian Fields”

                       Which ancient philosopher thinks that life is
                                                   a rehearsal for death?
                                    Or is that something from bullshit New Age
                        mysticism I read at
                               the hippie crystal shop I love? The suicides reverse it—
                        They think that death is a rehearsal
                        for flowers---specifically
                                  the night blooming ones. (81)

Further Problems With Pleasure, in giving ample room for both voices, and realizing you can’t choose life without choosing death, suggests a more balanced approach that may yet help reground the world’s “ailing infrastructure.” It certainly has renewed my faith in the possibilities of poetry as few books have. ++++++    Chris Stroffolino

[1] The theme of embodiment also occurs in the title poem, in which she takes a Chris Nealon quote as a starting place (“Sometimes I wonder what the novel would have looked/ like if instead of plots its characters had bodies”); Simonds writes:
                                                                       Maybe some want
a grand narrative instead of this
                                               instantaneous flesh flash mob
bullshit but I can’t help loving
                                               the way you want me
to suck your dick. (32)
(Notice, she’s not saying she wants it, or that she’ll do it).