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Burt Kimmelman
As If Free
reviewed by
Gerald Schwartz
100pp., Talisman House Publishers, Jersey City, New Jersey IBSN: 10: 1–58498-069–9 paper USD$14.95


Burt Kimmelman embraces a lot. He embraces black eyed Susans, Fra Angelico, cicadas in July, his brother, abandoned houses, neighbors and snowshine equally, in ways ranging from quiet to celebratory but all of them


[… ] let us
the littlest

of them — the,
by, upon,
you, me, us.


As If Free, Kimmelman’s sixth collection, reveals how much he passionately believes that every word in the language retains a subjective record of every instance of its use, and especially a record of the moment that brought it forth. He has an intimate knowledge of the power of language to effect change on the physical world. He knows from experience the humility required to bless and heal, and uses this knowledge to make poems that are simultaneously approaching prayers and works of literature. One of the most moving is “House, Normandy 21 August 2005” which first appeared in Jacket):


The day will come,
perhaps, when the
the forest will
enfold us all.
Even the stones
will disappear,
left abandoned.


Working simultaneously within both a weave of art, nature and the everydayness of life and poetic traditions (Olson, Blackburn, Bronk), Kimmelman believes that each poem — or each subject — is a window through which the whole story of our world can be glimpsed, and that language itself, the sum of all uses to which every word has ever been put and the sum of all experiences that lie behind every word, is the story of our species at the close of the first decade of this century and beyond.


For Kimmelman, the act of speech is an ambivalent visual act: (from “Neo Rauch’s Renegaten”)


Let us look to the far, simple
horizon — shades, hues, which frighten
the innocent — colors, forms, which
no longer reveal to us the
history of where we must dwell.


If he could not see the verbal image within the poem, he would never trust it nor consider it complete.


As If Free gives witness to Kimmelman’s travel. And those journeys have given him travel poems: “Queen’s View” of Loch Lomond, “Lido Cristoforo Colombo,” and others, some across continents, others across town, which have brought together his ancient and modern voices as they bear fruit, in broadcast both incantatory and magisterial, moving


inexorably to the sea
where the wind carries the cries
of children who stumble out
of the waves, as if they have
lost their way in the heat. We
lie still in the bright light and
somehow remember the bells.


In working often with lines cut in half, extending them down the page in long, skinny stanzas, he achieves a breathless run-on effect much like falling in slow-motion into deep, warm water. Kimmelman’s meters, like journal-entries, perform as effortlessly as talking. He has, as, in places where he takes off from Robert Creeley, managed to simplify what can be intensely meditative with a seeming ease of diction.


[…] These
things are what
we hold to

us. Then let
us embrace
them — because

we would hold
each other.


This, too, is a poetry that draws much from the solemn moments of our lives — the points at which our lives enter, for just a moment, eternity. As in “Taking Dinner To My Mother,” “Susan Sontag has Died,” and perhaps at its most evocative in “Washing My Brother’s Hair,” Kimmelman interprets these solemn moments as being an amalgam of human life and the writing of poetry, both very transient states. To explain the permanence within this impermanence, he’s adopted the pattern of palimpsest, a medieval parchment manuscript written on over and over again so that the faint etchings of previous texts rise up behind this most recent one. And this is his metaphor for human — and poetic — existence:


I set up a basin of
warm water and wet his head
and anoint it with shampoo,
my hands swirling in his hair.

My fingers rub his scalp and
feel the odd bumps and hollows
of the skull his hair hides as
if they were embarrassments.


Speech for Kimmelman is the only way for consciousness in this eternal world, but it comes at a price: With the single exception of love, it does not have a product other than the act itself, because the words are not our own. They are borrowed from our ancestors, as they are always our words and not our words.


Generosity is the basis of this book. Kimmelman projects great possibility — the ability to use language to its fullest and thus to think to its fullest — and that is what we find in As If Free. To this poet, as it was with his antecedents — it is not the self that thinks the thought. It is the words that think the self to see the thought. As If Free welcomes us to those words.

Gerald Schwartz is the author of Only Others Are (Legible Press 2003), as well as World (Furniture Press 2005). His Universe was performed in Venice (October 2009) as part of the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope.

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