After the Storm. . Thomas Zemsky, Broadstone Books, 2016.
Why is contemporary poetry so somber? If you’d like to have some fun, this book is designed just for you. Clearly written, its poems are accessible to everyone, and full of joy and humor.
What is referred to as “The Sixties” was a time when surrealism became the norm. Hyper-juxtapositions of dissonant imagery mirrored the cacophony of violence in the streets. For a generation nurtured on the bomb, there was no guarantee there would be a tomorrow. And some of the finest, most innovative poets disappeared within that maelstrom.
So how wonderful it is to have a collection of these witty, heartfelt poems from Thomas Zemsky. Appearing in a nondescript way, hidden while visible in plain sight, Zemsky may finally be shared with a larger audience. Readers who love Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, James Tate, or Dean Young will delight in this urbane humor. After the Storm is an offering of what survives the Sixties.
Metaphor is Zemsky’s strength, coupled with a sense of bemused humor. In “The Bell,” Zemsky writes,
It is not that there is a child inside me,
that is me as I was,
but that there is my part of a child
who is not me, not me
because I can’t carry my own coffin.
The source for his insights arise from awe and wonder that transform “coffin” death into something funny, without losing the depth of its macabre conceit. It also reveals an underlying romanticism tempered by irony. “The child” is not father to the man, so much as an unyielding yet irretrievable part of identity that no coffin can bury.
In a similar manner, “Give Me the City” celebrates the raucous downtown, “where the streets are poems,/the cars & trucks words constantly/rewriting each line.” Everything becomes language, an act of writing poetry, so that “the telephone poles are grammatical,/the light poles rhyme….” Metaphor tames the city by making all its parts poetic.
Like Rip van Winkle, in “Quickly Aging Here” the poet wakes up as “Emily Dickinson” or “Li Po,” both hermits in their own right. What these two poets share is compact brevity, something Zemsky achieves often, but especially in poems such as “Chinese Junk” and “Kafka Country.”
This collection is most enjoyable to read, and most profound to reread. May what was pulled from his heart delight you, he has so longed to give somebody pleasure.
[August 29, 2016]
Made in Detroit
Knopf, 2015. $27.95
Poetry is rarely celebrated for its bluntness, but Marge Piercy’s obsessions over the socioeconomic destruction of her childhood Detroit speak directly to an audience not of other poets, but of working-class citizens. The language is direct and clear, as Piercy catalogues the missing stores and businesses, schools and playgrounds, that have been wiped off the face of the earth. In Detroit’s ravaged bankruptcy, so also have disappeared her parents:
“Our neverending entanglement”
How long do we mourn our mothers?
Unfinished business. Unspoken
sentences that burn on the night.
Tangled thickets of stymied
love. Steps worn smooth
with scrubbing, never to be
We mourn our mothers till
we ourselves are out
of breath. That umbilical
cord between us, never
really cut no matter how
hard we tried in adolescence
to sever it…. [pg 27]
Piercy is now the caretaker of her generational memories, and, with tribal honor, owns the land by being buried in it:
“Ashes in their places”
I put my mother into the garden.
I put my father into the sea…. [pg. 29]
This forthright approach leads directly to political satire. Within “The poor are no longer with us,” for example, Piercy addresses significant political hypocrisies that few liberals could disagree with:
No one’s poor any longer. Listen
to politicians. They mourn the middle
class which is shrinking as we watch
in the mirror. The poor have been
discarded already into the oblivion
pail of not to be spoken words.
They are as lepers were treated once,
to be shipped off to fortified islands
of the mind to rot quietly. If
poverty is a disease, quarantine
its victims. If it’s a social problem
imprison them behind high walls.
Give them schools that teach
them how stupid they are. But
always pretend they don’t exist
because they don’t buy enough,
spend enough, give you bribes
or contributions. No ads target
their feeble credit. They are not
real people like corporations. [pp. 63—64]
At her most comic, she gives expression to the limitations that define the religious right in this country:
“Ethics for Republicans”
An embryo is precious;
a woman is a vessel.
A fertilized egg is a person;
a woman is indentured to it.
An embryo is sacred until birth.
After that, he/she is on their own.
Abortion is murder. Rape,
incest are means to an end:
that precious fertilized egg
housed in an expendable body.
Let us make babies and babies
and babies; children are something
else, probably future criminals,
probably welfare cheats whose
education hikes taxes, You
can freely dispose of them. [pg. 69]
The whole first half of this collection of poems is overwhelming in Piercy’s contempt for the destruction of middle-Western values and cities, but fortunately the last portion of this book centers on her Jewish faith and its familial values. In “N’eilah,” Piercy writes, “I kneel before what I love/imploring that it may live….//We must/forgive our failed promises–/their broken glass in our hands” [pg.100]. This religious base provides the ethical grounding for Piercy’s contempt toward contemporary American political indifference. Our current social losses occur in relation to much greater losses from the Jewish past. In “How she learned,” Piercy reminds us,
…Anna had a sister.
A sister vanished into smoke.
A sister torn from her mother,
murdered, burnt. Anna sat numb.
She was the replacement for
a girl whose name her mother
could not speak…. [pg.104]
No generation is free of the heritage of violence, even though that collective forgetfulness – the desire to move beyond race, for example – defines American exceptionalism as that need to be innocent by rejecting any lineage that connects to the old country from which immigrants have fled to reinvent themselves.