Josephine Baker Swimming Pool
Reviewer: Ann Wehrman
Although much of North America still struggles with forbidding cold and ice-bound sidewalks, on the West Coast, where this review is being written, spring arrived in February this year. Ridiculously early, flowers budded, ornamental trees filled the air with white blossoms like confetti, and people turned off heaters, washing and packing away their heavy jackets. The feels-too-good-to-be-true mild spring weather eerily parallels the tone and vision of Tim Suermondt’s new collection, Josephine Baker Swimming Pool.
Using translucent language and accessible images from daily life, Suermondt’s poems are grounded in his outer and inner worlds: his beloved wife, commonplace occurrences, and places he visits, as well as reflective, philosophical musings on love, human frailty, and the current times. The poems’ readable style is equanimous and tender, enlivened by occasional whimsy or unexpected placement of an image. The poems are not one-sided or blind to the tragedy and suffering of life, though; far from it. Suermondt writes about recognizing, yet transcending, the world’s darkness. He is not evangelical but there is a message; things will work out and love is the way. For example, in “Just Life,” he writes:
I see the moon moving slowly
by my study’s window—shepherd
moons on the job, those tugboats
to the ocean liners of the universe.
I hear cello music, then muted rap
turning to silence. A couple walk
their dogs on the edge of the park
and everything I lost is coming back—
with flourish and no trace of sadness.
I push aside papers and finish a book,
back, back in love with the impossible.
Reflecting on the title in relation to the poem, one sees that “Just” may mean justice, a life of justice: fairness, balance, and karma. Further reflection brings one to consider the idea of fruitfulness returning after winter’s cold death, of sun returning after dark night, as has been the case throughout history. The poems in this collection invite the reader to view life and the world with that perspective, with trust and gratitude.
The title poem, “Josephine Baker Swimming Pool,” begins, “My wife and the others plunge in, / sluice the water like the most elegant of porpoises.” The speaker laments his “landlubber heart … wishing / I had the ability to join the swimmers.” Invoking Josephine Baker as he watches “a band of crows circle,” he expresses approval and a sense of reverence as his “wife is out of the pool, toweling herself off, / slowly swaying her hips, her own Banana Dance / cool among the marble and the immortality.” The reader relaxes in the warmth of this shared conjugal bliss, needing only a cool drink, perhaps, to complete the moment.
“I Stand Almost at the Edge of the Ocean but I Pay It No Attention” sings of Suermondt’s deep love for his wife, poet Pui Ying Wong. The poem describes his feeling of loss during a brief period when they were apart, emphasizing his passion and longing in physical images of food and of the ocean itself:
… understanding the power of simplicity
like a prisoner who dreams not of a four
course meal, but of one slice of rye bread
buttered so thin its lack makes one ravenous
I don’t do exile well and waiting for anything
makes me bereft, waiting for you unbearable.
I’ll leave when the sun starts to retire, only
to be back in a matter of days to be rude again,
imagining the expanse between us shrinking
as the waves slip further in than out, in solidarity.
Many of the poems center on careful description of place, Suermondt invoking a street, town, riverside, then extrapolating meaning from that setting. In “Small Streets,” he gently pays tribute to nameless, dusty paths common to all towns, those side streets or small-town alleys where time slows and one is welcome, where fear abates:
I too love small streets—
those orphans who don’t want us
to make a fuss over them
but are delighted when a stranger
shows up and walks through,
by choice or chance. Big History
is never there, though the residents
often display a quiet dignity worthy
of long years note. Birds always
hop on the concrete—the scrawny
trees always seem a little naked
even in a state of bloom, and the moon
always looks like you can capture it,
put it in your pocket and pull it out
whenever you swear it’s necessary.
In addition to writing about places he’s been, in “The Old Idea of War, 2237,” Suermondt depicts an imaginary place, a potential space that has changed, for the better! The poem postulates a future in which humanity has finally shed the heavy burden of tyranny and in which artificial intelligence has turned out to be a friend, rather than a threat to human survival:
I walk in the park
and watch the dogs,
and the gentle cyborgs,
no dark glove trying
to smother every continent—
history bathes in generosity,
always in the open and beautifully.
In the end, Suermondt’s minimalist, meditative snapshots of mundane affairs offer unapologetically positive hope for humanity laboring under a self-inflicted, karmic load of violence and tragedy. Suermondt writes, in “A Cautious Optimism”:
A fearless optimism would be better,
but we do have to take what we can.
Yet today the sky was clear, the night
placid with a few stars, the air smelling
a little aromatic and couples on benches
silhouetted in the branches and leaves of trees,
gratitude humming Beethoven who insisted
“if you know my music, you know happiness.”
In Suermondt’s vision, which is not blind to this era’s darkness and destruction, in the end, love conquers. The poet is neither delusional nor naïve; he writes with power and a mature voice. The poems are grounded in real life, descriptive and alive with metaphor, sensory details, and meditative depth. They offer an alternative to despair based on love, perception of life force, and fidelity to goodness.