‘Bend to It’ by Kevin Simmonds
Author: Julie Marie Wade
May 13, 2014
Tell me what you’re looking for in a poem. You’ll find it here.
A story? you say. A narrative scene with close attention paid to character and place?
Consider the poem called “Allen Street”:
Miss Pearl would open the door halfway
so I could tell her which flavor
& her smoke-cured contralto would sing
Hold on, baby […]
She’d return from the icebox with a huck-a-buck
& my quarter passed into her thick-lined hands
long nails jaundiced by smokes
that saved my mother too
Or I was thinking of a kōan, you say, a riddle that reveals the limitations of logic, the myriad other ways of knowing?
Consider “kōan in San Francisco”:
the body is essentially all throat […]
teeth loosen in the mouth of a believer
do not believe
& you shall chew savor & swallow
whatever you please
until you fill yourself with absence or flowers
Or I like a multi-lingual poem, one that incorporates etymology and polyphony into a larger meditation on life and language.
Consider “Après moi, le déluge”:
After me, the flood
This is my sign
Give me an aria. Check.
Give me an aubade. Check.
Give me persona poems, ekphrastic poems, and found poems. Check. Check. Check.
Tell me what you’re listening for in a poem. You’ll hear it here.
Kevin Simmonds’ Bend to It is a symphony of forms conducted by a master vocalist. It would be redundant to ask if Simmonds plays an instrument when his voice is an instrument, a conduit of incomparable depth and range.
But here’s a form I never expected to find as a poem—exegesis, meaning “critical explanation or interpretation of a text.” The opposite of kōan, the antonym of song, and yet here is Simmonds singing, a memory expanding in his hands like the folds of an accordion, expanding in his throat like the low, enclosed reeds of a bagpipe:
There was nothing trivial about the
Thai masseuse who slid his vertical
along my vertical, the power
outage, or those extra minutes
without charge. I cannot say he
wasn’t God. What I felt then, what
I feel with a man’s body on mine, is
holy, holy the way I imagine it is
right & without damage, worth
thanks & remembrance &
The hardest thing we ever sing is desire. It’s everywhere—in our breathing in and breathing out (“When you can control nothing else/ you can control your breath”), the flow of our blood through our bodies (“it runs mad in the ruby fractals/ of their capillaries”), the pitch and timbre of our voices as we whisper, as we scream (“Never afraid to rummage/ the plain thing/ until it surfaces ascends is called out/ sung”). How to capture all the melodies and cacophonies of wanting on a page! Simmonds tells us, “to twirl/ you must have a center.” To sing, you must carry a tune. His forms provide an axis around which desire spins, then splays, and with it ecstasy, and with it heartbreak, and with it longing that will not be resolved.
One poem, in the form of a “Prayer,” cries out, “Make me alive/ without anger.” But this we know is impossible. One poem, in the form of a second “kōan,” murmurs, “what’s more human/ than fear look at how human we are.” The poem cannot intercede on its own behalf, but it can lament the wishes it knows will not be granted. Oh, to be fearless. Oh, to be brave.
Then comes the poem in the form of a “Lie.” If fiction is the lie that tells the truth, why can’t poetry contemplate the promises it would like to make but trusts it could never keep?
Simmonds sings his untruth with poignant honesty:
I’d write fewer poems
for my father to say
over the flat cell phone
he’s thinking of me
remembers some vital time
when I was a small brown promise
with his wide nostrils flat feet […]
I would give up all the mouths
I’ve fallen into
even the soft ambulance
of a man’s body
And then there’s this paradox: how a sound can make us see so clearly. Perhaps this is part of the lie that tells the truth. We don’t believe for a second that our singer would give up these lovers’ mouths, even for the prospect of a closer relationship with his father. We don’t believe for a second that our singer believes he would either. As he examines the lie he tells himself sometimes, an image careens from his mouth to our ears, from his imagination to our eyes upon the page. Man’s body as ambulance. The word ambulance alone evokes sirens. We hear the screeching and wailing of desire—just two of its many songs. We feel the multi-valence of the word that sound inspires: siren, meaning both “a device that makes a prolonged noise as signal or warning” and “a mythological creature whose singing lured unwary sailors onto rocks.”
Maybe Simmonds is the siren of these poems. His singing at once warns us of—and lures us toward—the dangers of our vexed and volatile nature. Of a book that contains an “Exegesis,” we must also expect a thesis. This postulation appears in the first line of an early poem: “wreckage is the lasting thing.”
Consider these words as the collection’s existential refrain, what every poem that follows in some way seeks to prove. Our singer-siren continues:
whatever vows you’ve made
sink your vowel
none of us are right
just made […]
We are here without asking to be. We are wrecked “by many mannered// & unmannered/ fires.”
We are here, imperfect as anything, imperfect as everything, full of music and lies we tell ourselves and yearning for others to tell us otherwise.
The Bible says, “if the hand offend thee/ cut it off” and “as a man thinketh/ so is he,” but our singer-siren replies, “I don’t calm myself/ that way.” An exegesis often includes a refutation of accepted ways of knowing, asserting an alternative. Our siren sings his credo, which lends its name to his own Books of Songs: “That way you are/ bend to it.”
This is an invocation, a benediction, and an imperative. Bend to it—twirl, sing, keeping in mind that “wreckage is the lasting thing.” And if all else fails, the siren sings another alternative:
take my life
It will be
What I hear here: Let us make a canticle of our catastrophes. Wrecked as we are, let us cast ourselves beautifully and rhythmically upon the rocks.
Bend to It
By Kevin Simmonds
Paperback, 9781927668061, 84 pp.