A review of 'Further Problems with Pleasure'
Perhaps the highest praise I can say about Sandra Simonds’s Further Problems With Pleasure is that it gains deeper resonance on rereading 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.
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. Publishers Weekly is of little help, with its reductive overemphasis on Further Problems with Pleasure’s Gothic elements, and its claim that Simonds does nothing more than “report 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”). Other words (meant nonpejoratively) that first come to my mind are: experienced, brilliant, warm, vibrant, alive, present, intimate, generative, generous, passionate, antipuritanical, genderbending, 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.
While many books of poetry begin slowly with shorter poems, and tend to time-release some heavy central themes that don’t become clearer, on first reading, until maybe around page 30, Sandra Simonds’s Further Problems With Pleasure jumps right in (in media res as it were), with a five-page (long-lined) poem to establish the ethos, logos, and pathos of a speaker trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship:
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 poem’s title — “Poetry Is Stupid And I Want To Die” — the poetry may yet have the power to get her out of this destructive relationship, even if she has to identify with Keats’s 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, the floating modifier: “I know how to waste the mellow hour glides like a swan” (2). Despite the conversational elegance of Simonds’s 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. On repeated readings, however, 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”). Simonds digs 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’s collection achieves. On one level, it could be usefully compared to Anne Boyer’s recent Garments 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,
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)
The Publishers Weekly 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 Simonds’s 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 nineteenth-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 twenty-first-century woman respond to, appropriate, and reinvent that (alien) male tradition? In this, these poems could be great fodder for college compare-contrast literary analysis papers (like Tyehimba Jess’s recent critical appropriations of Berryman’s Dream Songs).
In “The Sick Muse,” for instance, 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 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 Shakespeare 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 Publishers Weekly says she reports from, Simonds’s poetry is not only a rewrite of Baudelaire, but an improvement over it, a forward-looking beacon amid this “terrible century” (66) and decadent world.
And though “death is never far away” in this collection, neither is love, whether for poetry, language, life, her children, or her fiancé, 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. (84)
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
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 frontlines of the antiracist struggle, but, for Simonds, the obsession with “honor” (in “Spring Dirge” ) 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 (76), and how 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 (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 writes 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.
2. 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).