Review — two books of poetry

    I Want This World
    By Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74, Ethiopia 1974–75)
    Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, $13.95
    78 pages
    2001

    The Circumference of Arrival
    By Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
    Minneapolis: Elixir Press, $7.00
         P.O. Box 18010
         Minneapolis, MN 55418
    21 pages
    2001

    Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

    DURING A PREVIOUS TROUBLED TIME in American history, President Herbert Hoover said that what the country needed was a good poem. It’s hard to imagine George W. Bush making a similar pronouncement, but if he were to do so, he might follow it by pointing readers to two recent collections by returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
         Margaret Szumowski’s I Want This World and Sandra Meek’s The Circumference of Arrival are filled with good poems. Szumowski has more of them, but only because hers is a full-length book whereas Meek’s is a chapbook. Both volumes feature careful, vivid language, keen intelligence and, in Szumowski’s case, a welcome wit.
         I Want This World is several books in one. The early poems center around Szumowski’s father and mother and their perilous hold on life in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. Another part of the book examines life in the Rio Grande Valley. A third section is highlighted by poems written about a younger generation. The last section, with its wonderful concluding poem, “Ngorogoro, the Crater,” contains what might be called Peace Corps poems — sharp, sensitive evocations of life abroad.
         Szumowski beautifully evokes her father in “The Trickster.” In each succeeding stanza, one line longer than its predecessor, her father becomes more elusive. He is evoked in the first stanza as having “hoodwinked the Germans,” in the second as living off wild onions and in the third as playing chess in the top bunk of a place in which “they locked you in to die.” By the fourth and final stanza, however, Szumowski’s father threatens to perform his disappearing act on her. Naturally, she rebels:

    I want you in the flesh.
    I will be your fiercest guard,
    make a stout cage of these arms.

     Szumowski is adept at probing the metaphorical resonance of commonplace items, especially foods. In “The Potato,” she traces the tuber’s significance to both her parents’ generation and her own. In both cases, the potato represents a kind of endurance and, therefore, assumes a holy place in her family’s world:

    Never forget the white church of their insides
    melted butter anointing them.

Szumowski displays a sensitive eye in capturing landscapes. “Borders,” in the book’s second section, paints a picture of both sides of the Rio Grande, first Brownsville, “where trees flame and the sun/beats blood-red through palms,” then the Mexican side:

    Here are the men pushing carts,
    orange and yellow fruit, big jars
    of pink, green, purple juices.

     The poet’s subtle wit is in evidence in this poem as well. It concludes with an observation travelers to countries south of the United States will no doubt have made themselves:

    Everywhere people tell me
    what I’m looking for is just
    two blocks away.

     Nowhere is Szumowski’s wit more in evidence than in the third section of I Want This World. “At the Fancy Feet Boutique With My Punk Ballerina” is an exasperated yet sensitive look at a young woman’s effort to find her place in the world. Although the poem’s heroine “dresses like death’s bailiff,” her appearance belies her physical grace. In the four concluding lines of this lyric, the narrator’s understanding of her daughter is turned on end. The girl with “blackish-purple hair” and “ears with seven holes” is transformed when performing:

    Stronger than I knew,
    she lifts her whole self,
    rises en pointe,
    body wiser than the mouth..

     In the concluding section, Szumowski shows how experiences overseas can be the stuff of rich literature. “Incident on the Gondar Road” will resonate with returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Instead of reaching the Blue Nile, as they’d set off to do, the “dumb Yanks” who narrate the poem hit an old man who stepped in front of their car. Their destination is altered, as they have to travel to Addis Abada to find a doctor. The poem never says it outright, but its implication is clear. The trip with the old man represents a special journey in its own right:

    Anyway, you should have seen the old man staring
    at Addis. Tall buildings, fast cars, women — he loved it!

         If Szumowski’s poems are strong because of the stories they tell and their pointed, tender observations mixed with humor, Meek’s The Circumference of Arrival succeeds because of its intense language and intelligent, sometimes brilliant juxtaposition of objects and ideas. Her chapbook’s title sums up her approach. Usually we gauge our “arrival” in terms of miles or kilometers, but Meek is interested in an arrival’s “circumference.” Immediately we know we’re in the hands of a poet who will look at the world in a distinct way, examining the rounded while poets of less vivid imagination might concentrate on the straight and narrow.
         And if Szumowski’s focus is on the personal, Meek’s is on the metaphysical. In “Seventh Year,” she writes,

      No one knows if cicada dream the earth
      as original erasure, or long for the dark
      airless cradles . . .

    And in “Driving the Desert,” she writes,

      Dawn, no rain, nothing
      spilling the sky’s hourglass, sand a horizontal rush
      belief stalls, believing
      itself the movement . . .

    The narrators in Meek’s poems seem incidental. Larger forces — time, destruction, death, the life impulse — drive her work. “Evolution, Lambertsbaii, South Africa, 1992” is a meditation on the borders between land, sky and sea and the creatures who inhabit each domain. It opens with a girl on the beach and concludes with “penguins taking the first wobbling human steps to shore.”
         Meek’s strengths as a poet are particularly evident in “Dune #7,” in which a sand dune stands as a symbol of our passage across history. Here Meek displays both her precise descriptive skills (a raincoat is “a stork’s wings umbrellaed open”) and her metaphysical concerns. The dune, like our life’s journey, is continually being transformed, and Meek writes, “ . . . What is/is never the same . . .” Even as sand erases “the way out,” the narrator concludes “we will never leave.” This, Meek seems to say, is the way life is lived, forever forward, with history dissolving behind us. The poem ends, “I think we have always been/here, wandering this crushed bone.”
         Good poems offer a means toward reflection and repose. And whether during the Great Depression or in the aftermath of September 11th, poems can comfort us with their wisdom and delight us with their ingenious use of language. Szumowski and Meek have written fine books filled with poems to elevate our minds and moods.

    Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala and Steal My Heart, both works of fiction. An assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, he has published poetry in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Slant: A Journal of Poetry and other literary magazines.