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]