Election Night and the Five Satins
Glass Lyre Press
Reviewer: David E. Poston
Perhaps Tim Suermondt would have us believe he is a luftmensch. The poem “Luftmensch” describes a character who is
like a miracle unaware of its gift.
He kept moving,
showing up anywhere, at any time.
He could be in your neighborhood right now,
walking the streets a happy man,
talking about the impossible
and all its beautiful rubbish.
Throughout this collection, Suermondt does indeed direct our attention towards the beautiful hidden within the rubbish of life. In “The Beautiful Sheen,” it is “the blue porpoise / lying among the trash on 4th Avenue.” The speaker cannot bring it home to his wife; instead, he brings roses, which he fears she will find unimaginative. Yet poem after poem here displays a rich imagination, a mature clarity of vision, a subtle and supple voice wise enough to say (in “Waiting for a Plane to Paris”) “I’m glad / I know nothing and have everything to learn.”
What we find in this collection is what the poem “Real Physics” calls “a very, very adaptable wonder.” And in “For the Haxton Southerners,” the speaker addresses readers directly:
You can’t measure
what it is I’m after,
beyond some solace, a glimpse of glory
incapable of going wrong.
What enriches these poems most are the characters who inhabit them: Stanley the musician, Jean Moulin, Otis Meadowlark, Shu Qui with her red fingernails, Alfredo the Cuban barber, Jesus dancing the cha-cha, the old rabbis of Clinton Street, Vermeer, the pigeon in the Palais Royale, Bill Russell, Albert Einstein with a windup toy, Alain Delon, Dickens, the angel at the Star Bright Diner, Theodor Adorno in his sky chair, a Vietnamese wedding couple heading for Da Lat. There are deceased friend Bill, Pui Ying Wong (Suermondt’s wife, also a poet), and a father who oils his son’s baseball glove and says, “Don’t stand on a dime.” There is a line-up of baseball greats: Jose Reyes, Pedro Martinez, Willie Mays, Chico Ruiz, Vada Pinson, Senor Smoke.
The poems are further enriched by the presence, in various forms, of a stellar array of other poets and writers: the books of Francis Ponge, Adam Zagajewski, and Jorge Luis Borges; quotes from Maurice Manning and Pablo Neruda, the influence of Osip Mandelstam and Louis Simpson. A William Kennedy anecdote about his father inspires the whimsical “2000 Cows Swept out to Sea in Puerto Rico.”
Most poems are in first person, and there seems to be little harm in imagining that the speaker is the poet himself. “Goodbye Margo” is an exception, where use of second person pulls the reader into a moment of vivid intimacy:
It’s your mother’s last day.
Still you have the courage not to say
“I remember when you cried lovingly onto
my shoulder,” or some similar nonsense.
You lift her small body off the couch
and both of you twirl around and around
her small living room.
The poem ends with Margo sailing off across the sky, leaving you (the reader) to smoke one of her cigarettes and contemplate how you have made your mother proud. The command of line and diction throughout is easy and masterful. The style is conversational but, with few lapses, maintains the vitality of language that sets it apart from prose.
One of the book’s epigraphs is from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” The poem “There Are a Lot of Angels in Poetry, but I Don’t Mind” is as congruent with Wilde’s proposition as any in the collection. After having lunch with an angel at the Star Bright Diner, the speaker strolls through Times Square,
stopping to gaze at
a huge billboard of a woman
clad for danger, holding
a bottle of men’s cologne.
A BIT OF HEAVEN
IN EVERY BOTTLE—
and for the briefest moment
I believed, believed
it was probably true.
The poem “Odyssey” opens with “Tonight I’ll dream of women / bearing gifts—” then moves to the reality that the speaker will only awaken older, with an alarm clock that “holds no magic,” with no memory of the women, that his courage will fail, and he will find his “shoes parked nearby— / familiarity: the long ship / that never leaves home.” But most of the poems in this collection do find magic: in croissants that “break through the walls / and spill onto the street” (“Little Faith”), in stealing fruit, in panties that evoke the Liberation of Paris, in hang gliding, in bandages waving goodbye.
There is self-effacing humor, particularly in brief poems such as “Key Food” and “The Unemployment Waltz.” In “Closing the Sky Window,” which texturally captures the nuances of marriage and relationships, the speaker describes himself as dancing so badly that his new wife calls it beautiful. There is a deep understanding of grief and loneliness, as in “For a Friend Recently Divorced,” which begins with the image of “The first time you reach out / and feel only the wind.”
In “The Centerfielder Will Tell You He’s Key” the locals in the Galveston bars are talking baseball, which means they are talking about much more than baseball:
discussing the roots of happiness, disappointment,
statistics and the imagination, indistinguishable—
the city sores healing quicker,
beautiful in memory after all.
Which poems will stay with us? For this reader: “The End of Fame,” with its range from the memorable image of sunlight that “slips through the shadows / with the precision / of a jeweler’s hands” to the concluding image of a pigeon providing the ultimate perspective on fame.
And this one:
I don’t know where it’s coming from,
but it’s a wonderful blues,
that is: lyrics sounding so hopeless
it fills you with joy
because you survived the complaint
the words sing about—you’ll live
to see the dogwood bloom again,
live to remember the sad sight
of railroad tracks going nowhere
and marvel at the resiliency of people
love has bruised or passed by—or both.
One night while taking out the trash
you might say to your neighbor:
“I love the blues,” and have him respond
“I’m fine too.” You’d expect nothing less.
Finally, one must put aside the ugly rubbish from the recent election and read the title poem sub specie aeternitatis. Even if we have “no Roosevelt, no Churchill, / no Five Satins for that matter,” even in a night so silent “you could hear a pin before it drops,” Tim Suermondt still sings softly and modestly for the good of us all. As Mae West said (in the collection’s other epigraph), “simply wonderful.”