Mother Was a Tragic Girl

by Sandra Simonds
Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2012
Reviewed by Jay Deshpande

“So this is why I am what I do, twisting the new mouth” 

The characters in Sandra Simonds’s poems frequently struggle with a forced anonymity: instead of having names, they go by a title or function, like “Wife,” “Dog,” “Pediatrician,” “Mother.” At the same time that these identities are constrained, however, the poems speak with forceful, often violent personality, splashing across the page, doubling over on themselves, prizing histrionics and sudden changes of register above the controlled order of a consistent voice. Study of a poem by Wislawa Szymborska can come just lines after “his wife’s band / drugged my husband / with PCP-laced walnut / cookies about ten / years ago in Dallas.” Diction shifts and flips; references dangle; the sensational lurks around every corner.

Mother Was a Tragic Girl challenges the notion of a fixed identity for the persona in a poem, using a fluid, high-voltage language to disrupt the orderly notion of a speaking self. We change from moment to moment, so why shouldn’t the “person” behind the poem alter from line to line, even as s/he accumulates? The result is a compelling vision of the self as a thing in flux, grappling with responsibility, desire, and social and historical context.

Simonds favors the long sentence, often matched with a short line to accelerate the reader through as many registers as possible. And she is dogged in her insistence that the speaker not settle into a stable identity, as in “Skyhook,” which begins in the voice of a pregnant Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who reveals that “my real name is Geraldine Ferraro / and that is the name of the woman who / got me pregnant.” The poem justifies its own method in it nears its conclusion:

FYI, Edgar Allen Poe wrote an excellent
short story on a case of mistaken
identity where the ego creates
and projects itself onto the basket-
ball court which mirrors the political
arena where Ms. Ferraro spent most
of her formative years

But even here, Simonds still manages to subvert any claims of agency by attributing this reveal to Poe, not to herself.

At the center of the collection is “Strays: A Love Story,” a ranging narrative poem of domestic struggle. Even as the characters remain anonymous, the developing story of loss and longing gives them shape and texture. Simonds interrogates the domestic sphere, pointing to the anonymity and mute functionality of figures like mother and wife, even as we see them in the intimacies of their own particular lives. Although the line meanders all over the page here, an order girds the whole: Each of the 17 sections of the poem is an acrostic, built on quotes from William Blake or George Oppen. These powerful influences make Simonds’ work all the more impressive for the fact that her voice picks up so little resonance from either ancestor. 

The later poems in Mother have more of a clear and sustained attention and focus on identity in both the personal and global spheres: what passes from one generation to the next, the problems and responsibilities of pregnancy and motherhood, and how we fit individually into a history that silences its victims. This is beautifully executed in “DuckRabbit,” which focuses on an Auschwitz survivor who “wrote his biography on / a torn label of a can of con- / densed milk.” Simonds unveils this text “landed on the other / side of history” through a translation within the poem, which proves to be as sonorous and strange as anything in her diction:

                                                  It is full of sun, this slit into the out
                                          there. Duckrabbit
                      duckrabbit duckrabbit. Into is so bright it will make
                      you vomit. I am the figure, a screwed
figment, a reckoning shade, life’s filaments, spare
         time’s one statement called ‘once upon.’

No sooner has Simonds presented this utterance than she contests it—“Can you believe that’s his whole life story?”—and then twists it further, retranslating it into a new strangeness, doubly removed from the original experience, where the bizarre idea of a duckrabbit—the ambiguous image used in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations—becomes the elusory centerpiece, the one thing that stays.

All of the poems are framed by Simonds’s brash and sometimes-violent voice, which becomes the jagged vehicle for intense examinations of the self in the world. She treats individual characters with brutality and is willing to display herself unflinchingly. But under the noise and chaos, Simonds investigates identity with real conceptual grit. Simonds is ever-watchful of her own poeticizing: “anyone who even attempts to write / a serious poem reveals him or herself to be / completely anti-intellectual,” she writes at the outset of the book. In place of seriousness, these poems pick up and recast scraps of speech, creating and destroying with a “cyclonic energy” that delivers a strange and electric voice.