» Book Review

Love Itself Can Be Dangerous

Further Problems with Pleasure by Sandra Simonds
University of Akron Press, 2017
72 pages, hardcover $49.95, paper $14.95, epub $9.99

 

 

Further Problems with Pleasure, Sandra Simonds’ latest book of poetry, addresses similar themes found in her other collections. All of her work addresses important, timely subjects, yet she has proven with each volume that she is not afraid of leaving her audience uncomfortable. Her poems require her reader to work hard in order to come to a blended understanding of both content and syntax. The payoff is well worth it. To me, the most interesting of her subjects are her explorations of violence against women, the dangers of love, the complexity of living in the South, and the potential of suicide.

 

She opens this collection with a five-page poem provocatively titled, “Poetry Is Stupid and I Want to Die,” updating Marianne Moore’s sentiment for the 21st century. As the title suggests, her lines are manic, almost desperate. By linking her syntax in nontraditional ways and by ending and beginning new sentiments without regard for punctuation, she establishes the manic voice, which emerges from her Lego-like constructions of grammar and yet ends up being hauntingly beautiful. The poem opens as the female speaker, alone in a room with a man, considers how she might escape “unharmed / the way a woman has to manipulate both mind and body.” As many readers know too well, women find themselves in situations that can turn dangerous in an instant. Here, we are reminded to always consider an escape route.

 

For Simonds, love itself can be dangerous. Such a forceful theme is apparent in much of this collection. In “Spring Dirge,” she states, “Some people call it self-destructiveness / but I call it love.” Even more explicitly, she writes about the violent repercussions against women in “A Lover’s Discourse”:

 

Every so many seconds a woman is hit by a man
 with direct tectonic rage. Geology
 is some rough sadism I know
 not what. Agony is property
 but it is also agony. Vow to me, agony!
 Declare your allegiance! (Or buy me a house.)

 

Simonds’ manic voice mirrors the complexity of these lines and the familiar, cultural position of the powerlessness of women. Here, the speaker considers the payoff of an abusive relationship, one defined by agony and rage, to that of material wealth. In poem after poem, Simonds positions her speaker in these places of opposition.

 

For example, another favorite poem of mine from this collection, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” juxtaposes ideas of the feminine. The poem, set in Mississippi, describes a group of nuns who are not who “they pretend to be / One is pregnant under her habit / One thinks she ought not to touch that / One buys a Diet Dr. Pepper and Twizzlers.” Because this poem is set in the South, I can’t help but wonder about the sins and terrors of this geography. Is God dead? Has he been false (like these nuns) all along? The poem digresses into a word and sound play on “nun” and “none”:

 

This is a place of weeping things
 where the world has wept
 and wept and no one has come

No Father None     No Mother None
No Baby None Comes     No Sister
None Comes No Brother None Comes
No One     like None
It’s that kind of place
 You’ve seen it before
 It’s blind to everything, everyone

 

Although they are not officially marked, I would say that Further Problems with Pleasure is separated into three sections. The middle section, titled “The Baudelaire Variations,” is broken into sixteen smaller poems. Simonds translates several Baudelaire poems, mostly maintaining a close reading of the original, yet modernizing them in order to bring them into the contemporary world. Most of the translations follow the path other translators have taken, but a poem like “I Love Wine!” is acutely different:

 

Today, omg, I’m just so spaced out and splendid
 as I walk this earth without death, without an apron
without being a wife and so my queer heart transforms into the nostrils of a
 winter
 workhorse whose exhalation breaks through the iced tulip sky.

 

A large majority of the poems throughout her book are in the form of an address, and here too, Simonds ends with an address—this time to someone named Felix, requesting a trip to the “Oregon coast / [to] relax inside the boxed wine paradise of our dreams.” Historically, Baudelaire and photographer Felix Nadar were very close friends. Baudelaire claimed that Nadar was the “most amazing manifestation of vitality.” Perhaps Simonds is playing with this historical relationship and a present-day character to whom most of the poems in this section are addressed. Felix changes gender and appears to be a muse or imaginary partner. Remarkably, the name Felix is derived from the Latin for “happy.” Felix, for Simonds, is the “manifestation of vitality” that often, poem to poem, seems elusive.

 

The first and third sections of her book include both poems that reveal the hectic, intense inclinations of the speaker’s tone as well as poems that are tight, clear, and adhere to grammatical order. In both the first and third sections, the word “suicide” frequently occurs. It is a conceit that makes sense considering the desperateness of a suicidal mind. Mania and suicide go hand and hand. Simonds’ opening poems make the claim “I can’t imagine why anyone / would feel the desire to hurt a woman / who thinks about suicide every day.” Occasionally, the speaker of a poem declares that they don’t want to kill themselves, or they implode grammar into one important conviction in lines like “This is my life / I don’t want it I do.” Poems like “Ode to Suicide, Delirium, and Early REM” advertise from the beginning the difficulty the speaker has with life. Always keeping in the contemporary world, Simonds’ brilliantly contrasts a Twitter or Facebook posting about the shape of a women’s eyes to those of Mary as an icon:

 

mine are not almond-shaped, like my sister’s, my tips are “downturned,”
 something medieval and sad, something fenced-in the manuscript or
 economic,
 the way they paint the little strawberries are a technological advance,
and deep green vines up the gold-vermillion boxes to keep the text in, to keep
the lion in, to keep the flow
 of the blue flow robes in,
 Mine point down (Almond eye surgery for downturned eyes? please help,
 photos)
 the way Mary’s tips point down, the hue, a libidinous blue,
a corruption, wave, metal star work of mournful
 space —

 

I so admire how Simonds takes what to many of us might seem trivial social media moments and reminds us of the bombardment of criticism and difficulty that comes with simply surviving in the modern world. And, unfortunately for many, it becomes too much:

 

I follow these downward tips
 my eye sockets
that are not beautiful after all
 but eternally plain
as coffins.

 

In “Elysian Fields” the speaker asserts “Life is evil / That is all / I want to live because I’m stubborn.” The poem takes its title from classical mythology as the final resting place for the blessed. It also references a place or state of perfect happiness, paradise. As it is situated as one of her final poems in the collection, might Simonds be addressing the one thing her speaker searches for poem after poem? Further Problems with Pleasure, as the title suggests, is the elusiveness of that pleasure and all the obstacles that get in its way. Readers must endure the mind of one who toys with suicide and addresses difficult themes stemming from social to geographical limits and confines, but on the other end lies something real and rewarding and magical.

Didi Jackson

Didi Jackson's poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Green Mountains Review, The Common, Water~Stone Review, Passages North, and most recently The New Yorker, among other publications. Her chapbook Slag and Fortune was published by Floating Wolf Quarterly in 2013. She lives in South Burlington, Vermont, where she teaches Poetry and the Visual Arts and Creative Writing at the University of Vermont. Her poem "Hawk Valley, Vermont" appeared in Aquifer in February.