Mother Was a Tragic Girl
reviewed by Lucy Biederman
Elegizing John Berryman in 1977, Robert Lowell wrote, “We had the same life, / the generic one / our generation offered.” It is hard to imagine a young poet writing such a sentiment now, and not just because 2013 America doesn’t seem to have the resources of attention or capital to lay out a standard life for anyone. It is no longer in vogue to think, say, or believe that you have the same life as anyone else. We weren’t raised to think like that.
But Sandra Simonds’s Mother Was a Tragic Girl (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2012) gestures toward and articulates something in the spirit of Lowell’s statement, outlining and parodying a type of life that is more than merely familiar—it’s the life our generation laid out for us after all. If there is a poet nowadays capable of looking around America with enough clarity and bravery, detachment and humor, to say something like, “We had the same life,” it is Simonds.
Perhaps for this reason, I can’t recall a recent book to which I had such strong positive and negative reactions; I would take whole pages of it to my poetry desert island, and some poems, lines, or ambiguities made me so angry that, multiple times, I had to put down the book and come back to it later. I guess this is what you would call a provocative book; it provoked this reader.
The book is divided into three sections, “Beehive,” “Strays: A Love Story,” and “Made From Scratch,” and these three sections have a lot in common, including an aesthetic built partly around a sense of randomness, a zig-zaggy line that seems to scatter around the page when it feels like it, and a focus on both suburban domesticity and the ickiness and/or horror lurking behind it.
In the first and final sections there is a certain harshness to some of the poems, and, perhaps, to the ideology backing them, that feels absent in “Strays.” The last section, with poems like “DuckRabbit,” “The Battle of Horseshoe Bend,” and “1984 Pumpkin Pie,” also feels more political than the other two sections.
The circumstances or methods of these poems’ compositions are unclear, but there is a flarf sensibility to many of them, especially in the first section. Poems like “Dear Treatment,” “A Talented Engraver from Delft,” “Lass, Withdraw Three Hundred Dollars and Get Lost,” with their pile-up of clashing nouns and set-pieces, seem to make a joke of what the book’s first poem, “Used White Wife,” refers to as “serious poetry.” Such poems feel diametrically opposed to the type of poem that Helen Vendler has called the “Freudian lyric”—a Confessional or post-Confessional psychologically-oriented meditation rooted in the poet’s personal experience. For example, in the following poem, in which the title, “I Hate My Life and When I Take It Off,” bleeds in to the first line,
all my clothes, mirrors crack into a self game of polyhedral tremors. Self Four says, “Can’t touch the repressed poem with its suburban address and Dracula cargo of sucked flesh,” Be- neath Layer Six are my true feelings: a Zanzibar of brain shivers cut with Xan- ax or or- gasm layer of Florida beach, old lovers like historical sperm …
The broken words, harshly enjambed and jagged lines, and repeated words like “self” here suggest that there is something formal going on in this poem, but a set of specific rules is indiscernible. In fact, the poem’s gestures at form seem to drive home the randomness of its composition, inviting the reader to look for principles that are not present. Against that sense of randomness, the repetition of words like “self,” “sex,” and “be” in nearly every stanza suggests a critique of the Freudian lyric that puts the speaker-Self at the center of every poem; phrases like “Self Four” and “Beneath Layer Six are my true feelings” in the above passage feel like digs at a way of looking at the world, and at poetry, that prizes a certain and specific vision of the Self. Even the title, the idea that one could take off a life, could be a critique of the Confessional/post-Confessional mode that makes one’s life an immutable part of one’s poetry.
Then again, one can feel slightly foolish close-reading this poem—or any poem in the book. As “Used White Wife,” the book’s opening poem, has it, “It is absolutely unnecessary to write serious poetry.” In keeping with the anti-Freudian-lyric mode of most of these poems, the speaker here is a suburban husband and not Simonds herself, but perhaps it’s not such a stretch to think the author might feel similarly.
In the context of poems that take such a flip attitude, it is confusing—jarring even—to encounter poems like “Yoga,” “Advice to My One-Year-Old,” and “1984 Pumpkin Pie,” written in what feels like a different mode, one that seems to invest meaning and value in a specific cultural milieu—a context that most of the book’s more flarf-like poems seem to suggest is shallow.
“Advice to My One-Year-Old” imagines the possibility that the speaker’s son could be gay, and from there it relies on what seem to be received, tired notions of gay men and their mothers for their humor and punch. The poem’s first line, “If it ends up that you are gay, please try to / be fabulous, okay?” relies on a specific context and readership to make its point. Voiced by a straight speaker and preceded by the words “please try to be,” the word “fabulous” becomes a creaky, Other-izing term for gay people. The poem could be read as a controlled freak-out over the notion that the speaker’s son could be gay. The final lines reiterate that: “Use a condom, please. // Ah Little Ezekiel, / I wasn’t born a Jewish mother / for nothing.” There are a few jokes going on at once here—the notion of the speaker having been “born a Jewish mother,” when no one is born a mother; the assumed freshness of a mother telling a son to use a condom. But behind this there are some conservative, old-fashioned assumptions—about what a Jewish mother is and what a gay man is and what his sex life is like—that the poem relies on for its so-called humor.
“Strays: A Love Story” is the most successful section, because of how it questions social assumptions about suburban, marital, domestic life while, almost in spite of itself, building a sense of family, character, and drama. The writerly “I” appears very rarely here, but the first line of the sequence is “I don’t know why every time she walks the baby,” and there is the sense of the writer as a child arranging paper dolls—the poem’s Wife, Husband, Cashier, Dog, Pediatrician, etc.—for the pure fun of seeing what they can do. These arrangements become increasingly elaborate, the intricately, even beautifully woven themes and recurring details coming to hold more and more meaning; it’s almost as if the real topic here is meaning. There are beautiful lyric moments throughout the sequence that seems to flit between meaning a lot and meaning nothing, such as, “My world is shaped like a palm frond, thinks Husband.” And, “She imagines Sparrow / understands sorrow but when Sparrow smashes its head / right into another sparrow in a freak mid-air sparrow accident, / really, she can feel / only remorse for her imagination.” The penultimate page of this sequence, one of the book’s most beautiful and exiting, is also a great example of the lyric, cultural, and tonal savvy that run throughout this complex and problematic book:
Mother was a tragic girl who I think about every day, thinks Pediatrician between patients. Never choke on words, she choked on words, never discard a scratched thing; she discarded her own life, the linoleum sun, twisting and twisting forever. So this is why I am what I do, twisting the new mouth, prescribing. I love Wife’s risks, wrists, uterus, underwear, and the structure of our cozy game, how it alters, tears, surrounded by a depth, an untrue depth. Mother was a tragic girl, roped to her context: washing porcelain dishes with painted roses …