Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Finding light in the dark: J.K. Zimmerman

James K. Zimmerman. Little Miracles. Baltimore: Passager Books, 2015. 82pgs, paper. $16. ISBN: 978-0615245720.

Jim Zimmerman’s handsomely produced Little Miracles fulfills the promise he makes at the opening of the book. He proposes that his poems, in addressing the familiar elements of life such as distress, anxiety, death, and confusion will nevertheless extoll the human ability to transcend loss and reach tranquility. I was not disappointed. My reading was engaged, and I enjoyed the poet’s lyricism, diction, and adeptness with figurative language. These are mature and thoughtful poems that call on our senses of sight, touch, and sound. In many respects, the apex of peacefulness is attained through participatory reading of the poetry itself, by attending to this poet’s voice and insight. Zimmerman is an accomplished, award-winning poet, with work appearing in such journals as The Atlanta Review, The Bellingham Review, The MacGuffin, and Passager. My anticipation is that more poetry books are forthcoming from Zimmerman.

Zimmerman’s are beautifully-crafted poems of discovery, curiosity, and vision (e.g., “The Near Edge”). Readers are welcomed to wander and explore with the intelligent and allusive poet, and if necessary retreat to his safer zones. The poet is a careful observer of the textures of human life and sensitive to the activities of the natural world (“Four Days After the Solstice”). Zimmerman’s lines are short, with sparse punctuation – the images are simple and direct. No elaboration. Intense but not labored. Nevertheless, there is a high degree of lyrical measure in these poems, and I often found myself re-reading them to work on the vocal beat, the breathy, punctuated expression.

This musicality is not surprising, since Zimmerman (now a clinical psychologist) was a songwriter as a younger man. In fact, I could imagine some of these poems being sung and accompanied by music. I believe it was Charles Bernstein who, when asked what poetry is, replied, timing. Zimmerman certainly has the right timing in his lines. While the themes and ideas are somber and enduring, the structures are delicate, ethereal, and almost ephemeral, as if thoughts overheard. Zimmerman reminds us that in spite of close relationships, our lives sometimes indirectly participate in other lives. His poetry captures that connection. Above all, we have a personable speaker (no Prufrock) whose succinct style and compressed syntax encourage intimacy, a pairing with someone in spite of distance (“Synchronicity”).

Many subjects touch on aging, life’s passages, and handling physical change, such as forgetfulness and the inability to metaphorically sing (“Nice Weather,” “Dry Season”). Some poems deal with loss and the absence of people or pets, separation from others (“As If”). There are attempts to make contact with another who is gone through “the braille of feeling” (“Possession”). Some of the poems deal with fleeting time, the apparent thinness of life and experience, the ether of memory and the difficulty to recall and grasp amid “quiet corners” – threads in a tapestry (his image) (“Plato’s Nap in the Afternoon”). What does it mean to become old – how does age (suddenly) happen? As in “Expectation,” the simple arrangements of sensations, sounds, and rhythms combine to paint life’s picture of terrifying cruelties and simple joys.

Here are some lines from “The Dream About the Old Man” which, to some degree, capture Zimmerman’s elusive style; that is, his profound ability to invite multiple readings with a satisfactory cognitive ambiguity:
            I could not say a word
            would not appear in my
            mind refused to reopen

As simple as this thought appears, consider some of the possibilities. Speechless and without presence? Speechless in his own mind? Invisible to himself? Speech would not be revealed in his mind? Or he’s stuck in old age like an ancient larva caught in a cocoon (my image) who will not reveal his feeling of agedness to others. Another poem deals with our proclivity to calculate others’ ages, as if computing our own demise (“Relativity”). We open and close our minds like journals, looking backward and forward, often forgetting what we’ve jotted down years ago. That is precisely why we need a poet like Jim Zimmerman who has the ability to capture concrete experience in seeming abstraction.

One of my favorite poems (hard to choose among so many good ones) would be “Carving Avocado Pits.” The essential passage of time resides in what we think, feel, sense – the cutting of metaphorical figures through time and in mutable objects. There are faces which seem to reflect one’s own growing age with their “quiet resignation” in the creator’s hands. In some way, we are responsible for the creation of our agedness. How are we going to shape it all? Among other instances in this book (including the title poem), those are the little miracles: the brutality of being taken down, yet with the hope of some extra time to live. Indeed, in one poem, the speaker tries to reincarnate but realizes that “birth alone would / never be enough” and so infiltrates dreams of the living whose eventual death is gently “the brush on my cheek / of a butterfly wing” (“Reincarnation #193”). This collection is important since it reminds us – without clichĂ©s – how our lives can be filled with imaginative miracles of our own making, “...when color is not yet” (“Awakening”).

These are serious poems, but quite readable, crossing the space between ultimate demise and new beginning. In dealing with isolation, desperation, longing, and hope, the poet conducts attention to detail, measured cadences, and strikingly complex but relatable imagery (e.g., “Gratitude Journal (Early December)”). There is much lively action in this book in spite of dark overtones. The concluding image is of hope; not the stillness of a room but the vitality of life where we are like ocean waters active in curling motion (“We Are the Moment”).

- Gregory F. Tague, Professor of English, St. Francis College, general editor, Bibliotekos

Copyright 2016 by Gregory F. Tague