Author: Norman Finkelstein

Norman Finkelstein, Professor of English at Xavier University, is a poet and literary critic. His books of poetry include Restless Messengers (Georgia, 1992), Passing Over (Marsh Hawk, 2007), Scribe (Dos Madres, 2009) and the three-volume serial poem Track (Spuyten Duyvil 1999, 2002, 2005). His most recent collection, Inside the Ghost Factory, will be published by Marsh Hawk in the fall of 2010. He has written extensively about modern and postmodern poetry and about Jewish American literature; the most recent of his five books of criticism is On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2010). Recent poems, essays and reviews have appeared in American Letters & Commentary, Cincinnati Review, Contemporary Literature, Colorado Review and on the website of the Cultural Society.

Burt Kimmelman’s Syllables

Burt Kimmelman’s Syllables

Burt Kimmelman:: As If Free:: Talisman House

The sources of Burt Kimmelman’s poetic have never been in doubt. Prominent among them are the Objectivists’ concern for sincerity, the plainspoken intelligence of William Bronk, and the constant rediscovery of the self through language, which is one of Robert Creeley’s greatest contributions to modern poetry. What Kimmelman does with these is another matter entirely. His work is deceptive in its simplicity. It rarely takes the startling turns one finds in Oppen, the shifts from concrete detail to abstraction one associates with Bronk, the verbal acrobatics and studied landings that make Creeley such a wonder. But Kimmelman’s sense of the whole poem, or what Zukofsky famously calls the “rested totality,” is as impressive as that of his precursors, and in one respect, it exceeds them. He is a remarkably confident poet, though not confident in his self, his ego, or even his craft, his way with words, though he has every right to be. His confidence lies with the poem itself, that he has found it (or that it has found him), and that he can proceed through the poem, knowing that if he follows himself sincerely, the words will be there for him. They will present themselves, and he will measure them, evenly, fairly, into the lines and stanzas that will constitute the given poem. The poem will be there, present in life, its dailiness, as lived. Every syllable will count, every line break will convey the intrinsic meaning. Kimmelman’s poems actually refute what the poet himself asserts in “Big Wind In a Small Town,” that

…Surely there is
something about to

happen, but we are
all on our ways off

to somewhere, no time
to stop, take notice…

Like Oppen and Bronk, both of whom use the first-person plural to great effect, Kimmelman wants to stand with “us” as we rush through our daily affairs. He understands what “we” are going through; a certain low-level state of stress, a note of anxiety that must be overcome, is a given, implied in the situations of nearly all his poems. Consequently, he is one of the most compassionate and humane poets at work today. Many of the poems in As If Free (and the conditional phrase that serves as the title speaks volumes) strike me, on the existential level, as acts of rescue. The moment is clarified, purified—almost but not quite redeemed. The subject of the poems are easily classified: observations of nature from a domestic perspective, meditations on works of art, family vignettes, particularly involving the care of dying loved ones, a few elegies (Susan Sontag, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Creeley). The opportunities for a beautiful turn or a thoughtful observation are neither welcomed nor avoided—they simply appear in the measured course of the poem. There is nothing decorative about this work. Each poem, as it is made, bears the mark of its essential making.

In “Birdfeeder,” for instance, the end of summer leads Kimmelman, presumably in his backyard, to note that

…It has
become the business of all creatures
to search for sustenance where they might

—I among them, in the morning light,
though sitting apart at my table,

reading the newspaper, who, like them,
knows the coming evening will arrive

suddenly and the cold quite soon. The
birds gather tentatively—until,

all at once, with a flurry, they fly
off in a sure knot. The squirrel close

by claws up the maple tree beside
me—which still casts some shade—up to its

highest branch, posing there, ready to
leap. Below, the cat from next door makes\

her steady way from behind a bush
and onto the newly trimmed grass—her

careful prancing a pure grace. We all
want to live, but I alone will mourn

the relentless passing of the days.

“Because she is mute, nature mourns” writes Walter Benjamin, but here Kimmelman turns the adage on its head and finds it equally true. In their “search for sustenance,” the birds and squirrels know of the change of season, but it is only the poet (and by extension, us again) who mourns “the relentless passing of the days.” We are not mute, and it is within our power to articulate our sense of loss: acting upon this fundamental datum, Kimmelman assumes the perennial task of the poet as recorder and elegist.

Some of the most moving—and risky—poems in As If Free are, therefore, those addressed to dying family members. Most serious artists at some point in their careers deal with material that risks sentimentality. It is, I think, an important test, and Kimmelman passes with flying colors. Here is the first stanza of “Raking the Leaves”:

My father holds his rake beside him after
sweeping up the fallen, brittle leaves on this
chilly November day. The sun is strangely
bright for this time of year and we know the cold
is sure to come. He leans over, a little
out of breath, as if he were studying the
black asphalt of his driveway, and looks to be
answering a question he feels I will not
ask. “I’m not going to make it much longer,”
he says, without ceremony, and I, too,
stare down at the ground, and start to nod my head.

Like all of the poems in the book, “Raking the Leaves” is in syllabics: in this case, two eleven-line stanzas, eleven syllables to the line. In addition to this technique adding yet another layer of irony to the book’s title (the poems appear to be written as if in free verse, but definitely are not), the syllabic procedure provides a bulwark against sentimentality. It is an instance of form affecting content: the lines do not go overboard, so to speak, but rather, must work with and through a self-imposed restraint. Likewise, the poem is about restraint: the poet’s restraint in regard to his father’s mortality, and his father’s deeper understanding that at a certain point, that restraint must be set aside. This is the lesson that the father would teach his son before it is too late, because they both “know the cold / is sure to come.” The second stanza confirms the lesson, extending it to the next generation:

As long as I have lived, whatever he has
said to me, in the moment, of the facts of
our lives, has somehow embarrassed me, his way
of making things plain—as if, in my silence,
I had not thought of them—and of course his death,
not far off, is a secret I have chosen
to keep to myself. Riding home on the train,
thinking of my daughter, I resolve that when
I am old I will not speak of what will make
her sad, yet now, in the dark days of autumn,
I know what is possible and what is not.

Learning “what is possible and what is not” is fundamental to Kimmelman’s stance. He sees it in the art that he admires, as in “The Deception,” based on a still life of Giorgio Morandi. As Kimmelman notes of the artist and his painting,

he must have thought, once he knew
he loved to paint, to leave things
unspoken—the mute smears of
color, the bare ground of the
horizontal—a made world,
his stubborn craft what there is.

Poets cannot really “leave things unspoken,” but they can learn what will suffice. Like Morandi, Kimmelman lays out the terms of his work with a deliberate bareness, trusting to a power of suggestion (not produced by symbolism, but more simply, by syntax measured against syllable count) that will sustain and complete the poem. The phrase “a made world” takes us back to William Bronk, perhaps the greatest of Kimmelman’s immediate precursors. For Bronk, as for Morandi, and as for Kimmelman, the work of art is always “a made world,” a binding of desire and a stubborn, necessary turning of the artist’s materials back upon themselves to achieve an otherwise impossible sufficiency. It is the artist’s way of testing reality, of seeing what is and what is to come. Thus, in “Friends Gone,”

I fill the bird feeder with seed
and rake the leaves—the long winter
soon to arrive at our doorstep—
now, each year, I recall friends

gone forever, more gone than here,
it seems, yet the landscape no more
bare, and the sun, for a while still,
shedding its thin remnants of warmth.

What will suffice us? The elegiac tone that is sustained throughout this volume, presenting, as it does, “its thin remnants of warmth,” indicates that we can make do with love and friendship, which endure even beyond loss. (I wonder if Kimmelman is actually thinking of Bronk himself in this particular poem, since Kimmelman has written a book about his mentor called The “Winter Mind”.) What remains provides warmth through “the long winter.” The poet, so attuned to the discovery and preservation of these remnants, becomes a sort of naturalist, collector and cataloguer not merely of backyard wildlife, but of the minutiae of human life as we live it day by day. Commensurate with such activity and absolutely necessary to its continuity is the poet’s devotion to the minutiae of language. As Kimmelman encourages us at the end of his poem for Robert Creeley,

things of this

world, let us
the littlest

of them—the,
by, upon,
you, me, us.

These words, and the relationships to which they give life, prove not to be so little at all.

Burt Kimmelman:: As If Free:: Talisman House