09-29-2017

James Kimbrell

Take Me As I Am

                     --after Basic Training

Let me take the Trailways far from the barracks of Bravo Company 
to my father's corner of the ramshackle fourplex 
with its stairwell that smells like motor oil and beer, 
Aqua Velva, cigars and critter piss, like the armpit 
of dilapidated Jackson itself, and when I arrive to no 
running water, let me shuck my Class A's and walk 
beside my father with a bar of soap. In our cut-offs 
and flip flops, let us stroll with a total absence of stealth 
up the hill to the Bel Aire with its lovely unguarded swimming pool
where we will set our beers down by the lawn chairs 
and swim a lap for appearance sake, big orange August moon 
hanging over the rooftops like a busted bicycle reflector. 
Let me stay there for a sudsy moment with my old man--
miles from marching, let me forget how to lock and load
my twenty round clip and shoot the green pop-up targets 
shaped like humans with no arms. And when people 
who actually live in the Bel Aire walk by the pool and we wave 
to them, let them say hi like they would to any swimmers 
because we do look like rent-paying neighbors 
in the second before they register the underwater light 
like a train's beam shining through the shallow end, 
and the two men, the son and his father, up
to their chests in a widening nest of soap bubbles.

 

The Starting Point

1.

It was good to be a finalist in the Future Farmers of America 
extemporaneous speech contest. It was bad to snort 
what we called "Rush" (isobutyl nitrate?) with my buddies 
before taking the podium so that I floated up

                               and hovered a good ten feet above my body, 
                               the whole auditorium turning dog-dick pink 
                               as I yammered on about leadership and agri-business.

 

2.

It's not so wide, that corn row with its this-side-living, this-side-not.

 

3.

I wasn't allowed to march with the band. 
Apparantly, you can't just fake it.

 

After a month in the HVAC basement,
I mastered the first nine notes to the theme song of "Dallas."

 

What does it mean to ask, are the dead
proud of us?

 

As it was in that underworld, as it is in every other.

 

What comes first, the moron or the mirror?

J.R. Ewing, get up, we love you!

Every few days the band director would clomp down the stairs,
glower at my saxophone,
hard-sell the tuba.

 

We call it under because it's in the past,
not some cave-mouth above hell.

 

Apocalyptic Lullaby

Walking across the snow 
to the garage behind my house 
in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, 
crooked and cold garage 
where I'd tinker 
with this old pawn shop Stratocaster 
deep in my post-divorce blues, 
I did not expect 
to open the door and find 
a teenage couple going at it 
like sheep in a prospect 
of sun-dappled rye grass 
between the mower and my erstwhile 
weight lifting bench. 
        It was sweet how he draped 
his stomach, his whole 
torso over her back as if to shield 
her, or himself, from my view. 
What could I do? I said pardon. 
I closed the door quietly 
and walked toward 
the house and tried not 
to look out the kitchen window
like the envious creep 
I didn't want to become, 
the one who, it occurs
to me now, might have been trying 
to tell me something true, ever 
applicable: there's always porn. 
Always memory. Always 
a good reason to live alone, 
to stand outside the radius 
of love and witness 
the goings on of shoulders, 
breasts, the inimitable 
glory and mess of romance 
and hair and the brackish 
scent that, an hour 
later, lingered there. 
The world will never end.

-from Smote (Sarabande Books, 2015), selected by Guest Editor TR Hummer 

PROMPT: James Kimbrell is a masterful maker of similes. From the "stairwell that smells...like the armpit / of dilapidated Jackson itself" to the "big orange August moon / hanging over the rooftops like a busted bicycle reflector" (my favorite) to the "teenage couple going at it / like sheep in a prospect / of sun-dappled rye grass," Kimbrell's similes draw clear, specific, and surprising images.

Surprise. We don't often think of it in poetry, but surprise is often what keeps us reading. It excites the imagination and rewards the reader for trusting in the words on the page. This is not something we should take lightly. It's a busy life; reward your reader for taking their time with your work.

 

With this in mind, rather than write a new poem this week, go back into a poem you consider finished or nearly finished and ask yourself if it is surprising. If not, surprise it up! Reward the reader for reading your lines with some unexpected similes.

 

Don't just surprise the reader with these new (or improved) similes. You want them to be clear and to draw a specific image, but you also want them go beyond that first or second or third comparison that comes to mind. Dig deep into your imagination and see if you can surprise yourself. And, as always, have fun!

BIO: James Kimbrell was born in Jackson, Mississippi. He has published two previous volumes of poetry, The Gatehouse Heaven, and My Psychic, and was co-translator of Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-Seon, and Choi Young-Mi. His work has appeared in magazines such as Poetry, The Cincinnati Review, Ploughshares, Field, The New Guard, and Best American Poetry, 2012. He been the recipient of the Discovery / The Nation Award, a Whiting Writer's Award, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has twice been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a professor in the English Department at Florida State University and lives in Tallahassee.