Burt Kimmelman, As If Free, Jersey City, Talisman House, $14.95, 88 pp, ISBN 978-1-58948-069-8
Reviewed by Nicholas Birns
In “The Seeds of the Red Maple,” one of the most commanding poems in his new anthology, Burt Kimmelman annotates for the reader the phrase “fruit key”, is “a type of seed or pot of seeds in which a flattened leaf of fibrous, papery tissue, called a wing, develops from the ovary wall.” (64). The phrase “fruit key” fiancées not just bauxite of its conjunction of the organic and the mechanical but because fruits are products of a process, whereas keys illuminate or investigate processes; because using a key is active, while reaping a fruit can at least seem passive; because fruit is abundant, while keys are scarce. Kimmelman's definition tantalizes as well, with its vocabulary that could be used as well of human as of arboreal reproduction.
The tree is captured at a moment of transition, of late summer, even perhaps late midsummer, at the height of its :majesty: yet ready “to let go of its seeds”. Nothing is still; even the still luxuriance nature contains hints of its succumbing. But Kimmelman is not plaintive or elegiac; the seeds of the tree, in literal terms, become a tree diaspora, making the children who play with them “people of the tree”; the tree distributes itself, mixes itself in the world, in a mode of cyclical death—and-rebirth but also as a vehicle of a more widespread propagation which is moral and spiritual as well as natural. The title of the volume comes in here: the seeds are cast off as if free, sent out into the world on their own missions The almost Kantian irony of the title—and its three words are indeed together three very important words in Kant’s thought—are suggestive; the tree is not really free to go outside its own natural rhythms, but its exuberance and prodigality make it seem almost as if it were, and it is that freedom, as much as and concomitant with the tragic awareness of mortality that this midsummer casting-off inevitably denotes, which is the affect the poet wants us to reap from the occasion,
Kimmelman writes in the Objectivist tradition of Zukofsky, Oppen, and cognate figures such as William Bronk as well as contemporary practitioners such as the masterful Michael Heller; but his principal difference from them all is that he is not worried about sounding too romantic or lyrical; he can look at nature without total severity and can model rather than carve experience without thinking he will mutate into Wordsworth or Sara Teasdale if he lets down his guard too much. Kimmelman is not just a poet of stance but of place. His Cape May nature poems, illustrated by Fred Caruso, are among the most absorbing site-specific poems of this time, poems that travel towards readers in one direction even as they travel towards Cape May in, for the most part, another. The poem in this volume of the opposite topographical extreme in New Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, is similarly convinced by nature yet not overcome by it. He does not presuppose a Romantic unanimity or ease of reference about places, but they do exist: he does not enforce the composition of the frame (as others in his tradition might) so as to preclude them.
Kimmelman is a better poet as he tries less to be a loyal objectivist, and this can be seen in the ekphrastic poems scattered throughout the volume. In “The Deception,” on Giorgio Morandi's 1955 still life as seen in the Metropolitan Museum in 2008, Kimmelman speaks of the ‘stubborn craft” of a “made world” (72). Compelling as an evocation of the painting as such, in the broader context this is a kind of creedal affirmation, an Objectivist flag-waving so determined to avoid any epistemological connection between perceiver and referent that it becomes a bit doctrinal and airless. In some of his other poems about paintings, though, Kimmelman more than makes up for this, In writing about the sculpture of Laocöon in the Vatican—that famously inspired G. E. Lessing’s ate eighteenth-century treatise on space and time in art—Kimmelman prizes the analogy between sculpted and human body, “the ecstasy. of sinuous bodies” (68) in the sculpture both contradicted and reflected by the aging and vulnerability of actual bodies. “Variation of Green,” on an Ellsworth Kelly painting at the Metropolitan, makes a punt similar to that attempted by the Morandi poem but without any dogmatic recitation: the painting is “a sure possibility” that is “just there” calling us to “stand alongside it./ in astonishment” (64). The registering of the power of art is manifested without any aw-shucks excess or overly ascetic restraint: the poem opens itself up to the force of the painting without being overwhelmed by it.
There is a delightful and even bracing variety in this volume, an unwillingness to limit the poet’s gaze to a certain idea of the poetic, a reluctance to deny the potential integrity of any aspect of experience. “Reading Barbara Hemming’s Poems” praises ‘the possibilities” that notice of the world affords, possibilities as likely to be gratified in a grimy urban landscape or “a toilet overflowing” as in “the hills outside Santa Fe” (28) In “The Sleep of the Dead” death is resisted yet also seen as a state of calm and peace; a sleep we want to, and want our loved ones to, do their best to avoid but which also offers possibilities for wholeness, healing, and links between the generations.
Most of these poems are a page or two long, giving enough scope for setting the scene, for an exfoliation—or a seed-scattering—of ideas, and for an often unexpected turn or conclusion to reveal itself. In some poems, though, Kimmelman works within a shorter compass, unafraid to let every word matter, as in “Abandoned House:
Thin tendrils of moss,
Bright green in the shock
Of morning sun across
Red brick stones, stand up straight
To tough the light (50)
With only three words more than one syllable, each word carried a large burden, yet the way the moss/across poem wins out, in its contrast of stasis and movement, over any potentially over-melodic associations tallies with the air of alertness, of readiness, of crispness in the scene. If we do our best with nature, Kimmelman hints, if we stand at attention towards it, it can yield it can yield moments of quickened, restless unfolding such as this.
Kimmelman‘s experience in many different aspects of acidic literary studies (medieval literature as well as modern poetry) and his respect for academic ways of thinking without succumbing to being constricted or defined by them. His poems in past volumes on personal and family life are generally not repeated here, but lend their felt engagement to what in other hands might be more distanced considerations of nature and art. There is a sense of experimental, if not necessarily perceptual or moral, optimism here. We may not be free but acting as if we are will not only be inspirational can yield the exacting concentration and unlooked-for deliverance, the “quick tremor” (84) of these most welcome poems.