Sunday, December 11, 2022

No Small Comfort

by Brian Simoneau
(Black Lawrence, 2021) 

Reviewed by Todd Robinson

Brian Simoneau is a poet who paints in sound and sense, each image in his welter of a weltanschauung a shining thing-in-itself and an infected existential wound salved only by patient intellection. A native son of Massachusetts with as large a transparent eyeball as Emerson himself, he owes as much to puckish Thoreau, who punctured Ralph Waldo’s pretensions to grandeur and died first, as if to advance a theorem on loss. We’re all tap-dancing on trap doors, but hear the syncopation of our shoes on lacquer, Simoneau avers. Note the fine craftsmanship of the hinge:

  Like the sound you imagine a bone
makes as it breaks if you never broke
  a bone, atonal snap that’s nothing
like rifle crack or thunder clap 
  or knot in a crackling log. Like
a twig crunching underfoot only
  if you’re standing only on twigs
over a deep hole you didn’t know
  was waiting but are not certain is
studded with sharpened stakes, your breath

In this promising opening poem (“A Lake Opens Up Beneath Your Feet”), Simoneau shows his hand and takes the trick. The poem—like its brethren all through this collection—begs to be read aloud to catch the gush of sound that nearly lulls one into reverie with its chiming rhymes that in fact mask a trap: for while the braided indentations and assonance suggest sweetness, Simoneau’s poems inevitably return to his abiding obsession, one shared by honest folk of all persuasions: the imminence of infinity, the awful mystery of eternity, those fathomless scales of space and time which render our little dramas nigh unto nothing at all. Even the cosmic marbles in their long grooves succumb to endings which may or may not be known, Simoneau explains, telescoping from “the moon and stars, nebulae giving / birth, galaxies trailing to endless black / at their edges” down, down to an authorial iota: “I too become / part of a sun, even my darkness / only part of a star burning up.” From infinity to the infinitesimally small self, “we’re doomed, not because we never learn / but just because we are.” 

And so, not five poems into this bracing, beautiful collection, the big issues seem to be settled: nothing’s inescapable…we’re just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round. There’s something terrifying and sublime in Simoneau’s transcendental-adjacent “Semblance, similitude, synchronicity;” but one cannot dine on the sublime alone when “what’s happening escapes / what language we have.” Dead stars and astral voids intrigue and confound our poet, but he is equally perplexed and seduced by the teeming ground we daily pound, from city grids pocked by potholes and tow trucks to “hilltops weather-undressed” and a dozen still-wilder vistas of shore and forest, where for all the leaf-rot and “death in all / its disgraceful forms” eternal recurrence brings a peace which passeth understanding but nonetheless inspires:

                  Whatever tracks
you followed out will lead you back. Year by year a river’s 
zealous rise and fall will raze and restore your only holy ground.

A child appears late in these pages, and with her new care, a heightened awareness of tenderness heaving through the speaker’s blood, that learned astronomer laying aside his cold and telling instruments for “pockets filled, digging in grass / for granite and quartz, rock after rock / on the puddingstone poking from hilltops left behind.” The daughter is characterized, like her father, by “a singular searching, unshakable.” They stack rocks like “temple stones” just as Simoneau stacks his indented lines and half-rhymes, building spires or pyres to our burning selves and galaxies’ “infinite / expansion made to obey the laws / of coloring books”; ever and anon we face our days with wonder: “another / place to excavate, another stretch / of empty sky to fill up with our shapes.”

This book of wonders swaps the all-but-exhausted “I” of our self-revering age for the sage of Concord’s “eye” aimed squarely at the world(s), in fear and in wonder. The tone of alienated indifference that characterizes so many of my own poems is never once evinced in this journeyman’s collection. Simoneau is a scholar of earth and sky, of “flowers bursting / from mud at a river’s edge” who never reduces the biome to a trope of some human need or gilded truth. He is a seeker and a seer, a craftsman of taut poems that waste no words. Would I like to see more variation in his use of the page? I confess I would, for these latticed indentations he everywhere relies on do not promise aesthetic revelations commensurate with his poems’ profundities. And that is perhaps no small comfort in itself, for he is a poet steeped in tradition, building sturdy machines of language that sing and quake in diction and syntax, every sentence and caesura a well-made thing. These are not the dashed-off epiphanies of a drugstore shaman. Simoneau is a student of poets gone before (he acknowledges borrowings from Wilbur, Stevens, Dickinson, Emerson, and Williams), and they would surely recognize a kindred artificer committed to gleaning his teeming meanings with a nimble pen that still cannot quite strike through the mask Ahab sought to sunder, but which can with the grace of its sting commence a mighty ringing:

there’s no way of digging deep enough
to extract what it is that fastens
me, to say what chains any of us
to a place we forever circle
like a drain, a hole where once a star
shone, once turned like a god looking back
to drag us along the path we have
no hope of retracing in the dark.

Todd Robinson is the author of Mass for Shut-Ins (Backwaters/University of Nebraska Press, 2018) and a chapbook, Note at Heart Rock (Main Street Rag, 2012). His work has recently appeared in North American Review, Weber—The Contemporary West, I-70 Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Pinch. He records regular book reviews for classical radio station KVNO and is an assistant professor in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

No comments:

Post a Comment