Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Word for word


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Mad for Meat by Kevin Simmonds; SalmonPoetry

Citizen by Aaron Shurin; City Lights Books

Two multi-talented San Francisco writers have taken wordplay to new heights in books that are diminutive but rich in complexity and brimming with dexterous talent.

Kevin Simmonds' Mad for Meat sounds like an erotica story collection, but instead there's a lot of deeply-felt racial commentary woven throughout. "The Poet, 1955" focuses on murdered African-American teenager Emmett Till; pancake queen Aunt Jemima makes a firm statement about her place on America's breakfast table in "Uncle Ben know what I'm talking bout"; and startlingly authentic vernacular distinguishes verses on renowned diva Eartha Kitt, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and dedications to the "New York Stenographer who Disrespected Paul Robeson."

Atmosphere plays a significant role here as well. New Orleans, the author's birthplace, rises back up in "After Katrina" as Simmonds describes his aunt sifting through the storm's aftermath in front of her house, and elsewhere he scours the "French Quarter" for "one boy who knows the relevance of his body." The poet's "San Francisco" piece hits all of the right notes from Tenderloin life ("at post & larkin, perfumed & bosomed; tranny be thy names, one eyeing me") to the general (and much downplayed) air of superiority among its residents ("we are septic & dissatisfied with our attention spans.")

Simmonds' sexuality permeates the collection in both confrontational and passive manners. His "Sermon" dictates that "not every two bodies will create children," and in "Emissary" his words chide us to "steep in the hot water of everybody else's say so," but the smooth sensuality found in works like "Color Me" and "Singapore" nicely balances things out and creates a situation where strife and sex can coexist. This is an impressive debut poetry collection, and it will indeed be interesting to see where Simmonds goes from here.

Aaron Shurin, on the other hand, is no stranger to poetry, since his former works include Involuntary Lyrics and The Paradise of Forms, both well-received, along with several other books and a more recent book of 20-plus essays called King of Shadows.

As a longtime San Francisco resident (he's been here since 1974!), Shurin places the Bay Area front and center in Citizen, his first collection of prose poetry in 15 years. Lyrical and sketched with lush strokes of purpose and panache, these densely evocative paragraphs demonstrate a wide range of moods and desires.

It would be difficult to find a piece in Shurin's tightly constructed bounty that doesn't reiterate the beauty of his cerebrally-interpreted text, but there are indeed standouts and, conversely, some pages that could possibly rise above the heads of more inexperienced poetry fanatics. Among the more remarkable are the sensually charged "Throttle Boy" ("chocolate smell – coastal lather – bumping into each other by shoulder and elbow, secret plumage"), the provocative allure of "The Correspondences" ("it was shirt-sleeve warmth as they walked the urban sea wall, spanning the smiles of passing men, marking their giveaway gestures"), and the title piece set "across the wide rim of the Bay," where the unnamed subject "will locate himself on a map of monarchs and queens."

Shurin's three sections – Flare, Gather, and Hive – beautifully illustrate the wonder of the flashy, the temptation to collect, and an apparent strength in numbers. Not for every taste, the author's obscure technique and flowery repurposing of phrase and dictum may require numerous readings to get to the heart, soul, and literary carat of each of these gemstones.

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