Kevin Simmonds’s second book, Bend To It, reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s statement that “one can resist only in the terms of the identity that is under attack.” The book exemplifies poetry’s aim to confront and celebrate. Although minimalist in their style, Simmonds’s poems are courageous and wise and push against a tradition of keeping quiet about boundary-crossing, transgression, the liminal spaces in between.
Influenced by a Japanese aesthetic—Simmonds is a composer who lives partly in Japan and partly in San Francisco—Bend To It does not often use punctuation, and favors haiku-like and tanka-like forms and meditative koans. Simmonds risks self and art to challenge and celebration not only an affirmation of sexuality, but human frailty, and moral taste. Moral taste is frequently more engaging than moral judgment; since the reader’s ethical and imaginative sensibilities are employed with the mechanisms of a poem, it is more important that writer can be evaluated not only as an aesthetician, but as a moralist.
Simmonds achieves a delicate range with his technique—he does not favor pyrotechnics, but prefers simplicity and clarity. For example, in “Lie,” a reflection on sons and fathers, Simmonds concludes: “I would give up all the mouths / I’ve fallen into / even the soft ambulance / of a man’s body.” The metaphor of the ambulance is touching and specific: it echoes the harm caused to the son, but implies safety and healing, so the tension between pleasure and pain is made clear and pure.
In “sleep dear,” the speaker drifts off after taking Celexa—an SSRI medication for depression—and the poem effortlessly moves from exposition to dreamscape: “leave natural selection / to the uninsured / ask the three-eyed frog / how natural this world remains / neoclassical in my approach / my Bach invention sounds better / when I’m a little fucked up.” Like the frog, the self knows the projected self lies just below the surface. The pronoun “my” suggests that in his imaginative space, the speaker possesses Bach, even though the medication has divorced him “a little” from reality.
Bend To It also has a political edge, and even in its private moments, reminds us of William Empson’s idea that the pastoral is political. Empson: “It is clear at any rate that this grand notion of the inadequacy of life, so various in its means of expression, so reliable a bass note in the arts, needs to be counted as a possible territory of pastoral.” For example, Simmonds describes “A Date on the Bay” during which the man says to him: “Think they fucked like animals on Alcatraz?” The speaker’s affection for him falls like a cake in the oven:
I mistook the plaid Brooks Brothers shirt
Polo khakis & Lexus
I put on my Ray-Bans
blackening the bay on a date
Yeah he said
What else would all those men do
Yes I said
Conjuring poison to its antiserum
Our only alchemy
He smiled with blackened teeth
That’s when I wanted him to die
The poem is shocking in the way it compares the vicious prison in San Francisco bay with the polished men in designer clothes. The metaphor is shocking: that the Ray-Bans blacken the world like the date’s teeth leads to a predatory world—that of the prison—where their only alchemy leads the speaker to wanting him to die.
My favorite moments in the book are the third section, which contains short, jewel-like prose poems. “Mishima,” after the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who committed ritual seppuku after a failed coup attempt in Tokyo, tells how “a man’s center must be terse, motives punctured by orthodoxy.” Part of the pleasure of Bend To It is the way it shows how the self belongs to two contradictory impulses: to conceal and to reveal.
A long section, “Shaker John, Bamboo spine,” is a story of race, east and west, and nineteenth century hubris. It concerns the whaler John Howland, which rescued five youth stranded on a rock island in 1841. Because of an unfortunate typo, the book says “1941,” thus creating some confusion until we reach the book’s final note which has the correct date.
Bend To It has many impulses: the body, James Brown, Japan, abuse, lust, broken relationships, singing, sexual murder; Simmonds says “It never grows dull this life / Everything fulfilled / with imagination.” Simmonds has facility for precision, and for gently draping the sentence across the body of the line. He must use his skills as a composer of music for his poetry, and vice-versa. His lines and music will stay with their legs wrapped around you for some time.