Warsaw Bikini by Sandra Simonds
Bloof Books, 2008.
Sandra Simonds’ Warsaw Bikini (Bloof Books, 2008) will take you places. Reading it is like going on a world, and sometimes intergalactic, voyage to real and imagined sites—the Amazon, the Bering Strait, the Milky Way, Forest Wayward, Dogbonne University—with a guide who drops historical detail in favor of psychological projection. She narrates her consciousness straight into the landscape—
my mind’s coliseum
sliding off your mansion’s
(from “I Serengeti You”)
—as she steers the self in the cosmos:
destination, hello you
(from “Bon Voyage”)
These are tours instead of travelogues, the adventuress scaling real and imagined worlds in the space of the poem, grounding us with recognizable detail—a fast-food chain, a street name—before she veers off into a fabricated world:
I live in a boxcar
where Mission street
is a rotting bag of McDonald’s
where the Rin Tin Tins
lick and lick
the saccharin off
envelopes of the blue/black sky
(from “One Billion and One. My New Favorite Number.”)
Simonds’ poems are rocket-speed soliloquies. They’re the opposite of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility”: instead, they are acts projected out of anxiety, revealing the artistic propulsion of that psychic state—the prismatic, sometimes madcap voices and visions waiting where its arrow touches down.
If the turns of Warsaw Bikini’s diction and imagery dazzle as consistently as the book’s title leads you to believe they will (and they will!), there might be some room for the forms to better direct their glint. Many poems consist of dense, imagistic leap-laden stanzas snaking thickly down the page (“A System of Sufficient Complexity,” “The Truth About the Pills I Took,” “The America You Learn From”), but I tend to prefer the ones that use shorter lines and more white space, the ones that visually alert their leaps, deftly place their puns, and provide a defined, if rugged, structural landscape for the speaker to climb up or ski down (e.g., “You Should Put a Neighborhood on That,” “I am Small,” and “Tomorrow’s Bright Bracelets”).
Though I’m not the right reviewer for this task, I also want to note that I think Simonds can be read as an innovative nature poet, which is a combination that intrigues me, since “nature poetry” is one of those thematic categories that seems to have an implied aesthetic built in (i.e., tranquil, regular stanzas that each describe one corner of a tiny ecosystem and lead up to a transcendent moment). Well, this ain’t your aunt’s nature poetry—it’s far too playful and collaged. The only predecessor I can think of in Simonds’ vein is Maureen Owen. Both meet nature’s wildness on its own terms, which means the self is both inside and outside the wilds.
Finally, I’m interested in Simonds’ work as a new and especially vivid example of a trend in 21st-century poetics: at this moment, contemporary women poets in particular are in the habit of envisioning fantastical alternative realities and placing an “I” there to narrate what they see and do. This “I” takes its cues from the lyric (it wants to sing its subjectivity) and the dramatic monologue (it talks and acts in the space of the poem), but it most of all gives an imaginary performance, one that says: Artifice is everything. As I contemplate the reasons for this tendency, I think first about how women’s imaginations have not dreamt up much of the real world that surrounds us. It’s easy to forget that the brilliant, innovative American women poets writing right now would not have been able to vote just one century ago. This fact might seem irrelevant at first glance, but it’s the most hard-hitting evidence of the extent to which women have been prevented from shaping the political and cultural institutions we take for granted. Perhaps poetic visionaries like Simonds give a clue to a women-fashioned world when a real one still seems a long way off; accordingly, their poems eschew verisimilitude in favor of flights of fancy, escapades, dioramas, snowglobes, utopias. At the close of the first decade of the 21st century, there still aren’t many places where women can be the producers of culture without first having to enter into, and navigate, a cultural system produced by men. And while poetic language is not a patriarchal green zone, we could argue that it affords women a lot more autonomy than other modes of cultural production.
Speaking of producing culture: it’s worth noting that the editors publishing work like this—most significantly Shanna Compton at Bloof Books (which publishes Anne Boyer, Jennifer L. Knox, and Danielle Pafunda), Rebecca Wolff at Fence Books (see Tina Brown Celona, Chelsey Minnis, Catherine Wagner), and Joyelle McSweeney, with Johannes Gorannson, at Action Books (Lara Glenum, Arielle Greenberg, Kim Hyesoon)—are often younger women poets themselves. These are some of the poets and presses that emerging writers I know are most excited about right now, which is probably a decent index of some of the aesthetic values of the moment. These values strike me as: performative, artifice-loving, diction- and register-mixing (ornate and rusty, jokey and dead serious), and, by virtue of creating new women in new worlds, feminist. I can already tell you that some of these values will be illegible to some, and because of that, I hope those who can read them will begin to talk about them on their own terms. This is Adrienne Rich’s “promise of a whole new psychic geography to be explored,” and if it’s less recognizable than you expected, take note: Women live here.