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Creating One’s Self
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The Tang Dynasty poet Meng Jiao claims: “Poets are usually pure, rugged / Die from hunger, cling to desolate mountains.”

Rugged might, at first, seem a strange adjective to invoke when describing the elegant, often delicate poems in Burt Kimmelman’s collection Gradually the World; the image of starvation and endurance at odds with the richness of the vision captured in the volume—a vision whose scope includes marriage, fatherhood, Jewishness, and Kimmelman’s experiences as a poet and lover of art. But if, at the heart of Meng Jiao’s grief for his fellow poet, there exists weariness with the poetic endeavor, a lament for the poet’s existence, there is here in Kimmelman’s collected work also a sorrow—a reckoning with mortality and the constancy of loss. Toughness is also embedded within these pages. Rugged with its intimation of persistence and stamina seems apt. The over 200 poems here testify to the artistic and aesthetic value of the steady accumulation of detail and observation.

The book is divided into four sections with Kimmelman’s newest work appearing first and the remaining three sections each covering roughly a decade. The opening poem of the first section embodies the qualities I have come to associate with Kimmelman’s poetry: a fascination with the physical world, with family life, as well as the clarity and honesty of emotional expression. The title of the opening poem, “Lips,” invokes sensual experience: the kiss, the sip, the action of forming words. The power of the first two stanzas derives from the juxtaposition of a series of poignant and evocative images: the poet as a boy watching his father shave; the poet as a man seeing in himself his father’s features; and the memories of the veiled expressions of his parents’ disillusionment and emotional estrangement. The final stanza, though, takes a darker—and startling—turn:

I found my dead father, his head resting on a pillow, in his death mask his lips wrenched sideways, twisted as if, in wanting to utter a final thought, he had sought an elusive breath of air.

A poem characterized in the first two stanzas by motion and sensation freezes in the third. Kimmelman preserves the image of both his parents on their deathbeds. The poet’s final homage to his parents is a simple act: a kiss against cold flesh.

Fans of Kimmelman often note the debt he owes to the Chinese classical poetic tradition. His poems certainly exhibit the characteristics we associate with Chinese poetry, including precision in language, observation of the natural world, concision, and a preoccupation with impermanence. For example, this nature poem “After the Storm”:

Rain gone, the white flowers
on the brambles bow forward
over a mallard floating by
beside its image in the water.

Nature here is active, transformative, and transient. Kimmelman also incorporates many of the formal traditions of Chinese poetry including the manipulation of the poetic line through patterns of syllabic meter, caesura, and enjambment to create original and unusual associations. In his poem “Wounded Bird” Kimmelman writes:

Water covers
what it can
and makes the shore
where the bird,

wounded, standing
on its one
good leg, each day

finds within
the mud the life of insects
to its liking.

Rigor is maintained through the alternation between three and four syllable lines. The end-stopped fourth line and the caesura in the fifth carry the dramatic tension, and the destruction in the final stanza is about the preservation of life as well as its impermanence—common themes in Asian poetry. It’s important I think to note that the use of form here isn’t simply indulging a fascination with the exotic or an attempt to import formalism, but an artist seeking through tradition a way of engaging—and finding agency—in the world around him. The result is a focus on personal humility and awe, the striving, through art, to place the poet not just in a vast topography but also in the vast experiences of life.

To limit oneself to Kimmelman’s landscape poems risks ignoring the range displayed in Gradually the World. Many of the poems of the eighties are exuberant ekphrasis. Other poems tackle the joys...

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