Warsaw Bikini by Sandra Simonds
From the opening lines, Warsaw Bikini, the debut book of poems by Sandra Simonds, gushes forth with a verbose intensity that does not relent until the final line of the last poem. Ranging from free verse lyrics to tender elegies, the poems create a frenzy, an avalanche of words that may bury the reader. For there is a certain violence at work here. We can prepare for the onslaught, but no one is safe. Not even the author.
Seemingly writing from a point of discomfort, Simonds fully captures that feeling in the poems, flipping the script on expectations and unsettling the reader. “These Days Are Malthusian Footnotes” is a good example, capturing an intensity and strangeness reminiscent of Celan and capturing the fierce musicality of Plath. The poem opens:
Like a bildungsroman at the center of a pile
of Warsaw war snow
beating like uncle wound
or the cuckoo clock’s beak’s
scheduled meeting with o’clock,
one wing of the bird was left for me. That the animal eats, shits
and dies free…
And where is the snow, Warsaw?
The zero’s blank corpse sounds over crops erotic as gas
and the asbestos that tang the lungs into submission tumors, into blue trees—
(you’re a tame dog) but they are not ze-
they are not know-
The tone of many of the poems is accusatory, but the derision is not just directed towards the world and others, it is also turned inward. Simonds tells parables of being a horrible person, calls herself a “boo-hoo Jew,” longs for “the noose [she] once was,” and echoes “you may never amount to anything.” However, the mocking isn’t self-pitying, but a sign of strength and determination to persevere. In “Their Cats,” Simonds writes:
I am poor.
I am so poor
that I vomit pennies.
so count them
if you want to be
In this economy,
I ’m nothing,
my friends are nothing,
the poems that they write
are good for nothing
and there’s nothing
they can do about it…
In this economy, the poet may be nothing since the poems he or she writes are worth nothing. However, this worthlessness does not stop the poet. It does not stop the desire to go on.
Not all of the poems in Warsaw Bikini are so dark. “A Poem for David Schubert” is lyrically beautiful, as is “Tokyo Elegy for Zach Over Okonomiyaki.” There is also a lot of humor throughout the collection, whether it is asking “oh where oh where / can my Gucci be?” in “I Serengeti You,” or the slightly skewed model of academia presented in “The Academy of The Future: Scenarios and Models” wherein the author has an endowed chair at Dogbonne University.
With appearances by explorers like Alexis de Tocqueville and Ponce de Leon, it is easy to see the individual poems as adventures too. In “Ode to the Adventure Writer,” Simonds writes:
I carry sixteen passports and know eight languages
just like Sallah in
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
who sticks his thumb into a Peruvian pan flute and
emerges from the airliner as
postmodern as Giovanni Versace, who,
even though killed by a serial killer
remains permanently scarred by his
sister’s overtanned face and really bad hair…
Simonds is taking us somewhere new, somewhere foreign where our feet do not quite feel sturdy on the strange terrain beneath us -- perhaps a kind of New York School hyper reality where references to Freud, Wittgenstein, Woolf, and Berrigan stand alongside fairy tales and pop culture references like Baby Jessica, the Challenger explosion, Madonna and Windex. And while the note for “Writing My Bike in Circles Around this Poem to Prove that I Persist” cites Dickinson as a source for the title, I can’t help but think of Duckie in Pretty in Pink riding his bike past Andie’s house hundreds of times a day to show his affection.
Throughout the collection, Simonds displays a quick wit, a deep knowledge of literature, an expansive vocabulary, and an unceasing imagination. Warsaw Bikini is at times devastating, at times humorous, and at times breathtaking, but always ebullient. Simonds’s is a strong voice whose fierce commitment to poetry is captured here. And even though poems may be “good for nothing” financially, I am sure we will see much more from Simonds in the future.
Warsaw Bikini by Sandra Simonds