As Close As We Can Get

The American Poems,
Colin Simms,
[£10.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4 LD]


The first thing to mention about this book is its high production standards, pushing the limits of what print-on-demand publications can offer. In a non-standard wide format to accommodate Simms' Whitmanesque long lines, the whole book appears to be in bold type and contains internal illustrations by Simms himself. The bold type and long lines combines to give a strong visual impact, stratified on the page like thick black layers of humus. Rich indeed, these poems look great on the page.

These are mostly long poems, and present the results of a life-long engagement of this English poet with the continent of North America. As often with outsiders peering in to this vast continent and attempting to represent it in artistic terms, the result is very different from the production of  North American artists. Few American poets within the parameters of modernist or interesting poetry address the landscape and fauna so directly. For Simms this is central. Secondly there is the Native American aspect. This has been celebrated imitated and anthologised by American poets such as Jerome Rothenberg, but Simms' approach is far less cerebral, based on experience and engagement. There is little of the Technician of the Sacred angle here, Simms writes about the people he encounters within the landscape, cross-referencing it to a history of exploitation he is not only aware of but seems to encounter (Simms seems to have been there during the stand-offs on the Dakota Reservations with the F.B.I. in the mid-70s). I guess these areas might be too painful or too laden with guilt or too distant for say a U.S. writer who is not actually a Native American.

What seems to be important about this poetry to me, and what differentiates it from most other, is the experiential content. In this it reminds me of how the work of John Clare, for whom the described subject was more central than the finished artwork. Clare differed from his contemporaries (and was often reviled by them) because he wrote what he saw at a period when the fauna of the country, and the economics of farming, was exclusively used as a source or a metaphor, not as a referent. The crudities in Clare's work are incidental because Clare was not interested in producing a polished poem, or perhaps misunderstood (understood in his own terms) the purpose of poetry. Clare would simply decide to write about a badger or a farm because there was not the same experiential divide between him and these things as with other poets of his (or our) period.

With Simms there is a similar naivety, a short-circuiting of the distance unspoken but implied in a modern poet writing about 'nature'. Modern poetry avoids or questions 'nature' as a subject because (after structuralism) it sees that there is no such thing, or rather 'nature' is a human creation, a structure invented by us in order to define what we are. It is assumed that nature in art can only be a mirror, a way to write ourselves. These questions do not seem to trouble Simms, in the same way that they did not trouble Clare, but in a similar way he is allowed to transgress aesthetic conventions. With Clare this is in retrospect, through an awareness in the modern reader of class and dialect, so that Clare is now valued for the same reasons he was previously ignored and misunderstood. In Simms' case it is because of his total commitment to living an outdoors life, apparently prepared to track and live with animals for long periods. Not so much nature poetry as naturalist poetry, the best poem in the book is Carcajou, described as 'a long-poem of an encounter with the wolverines of the Old and New Worlds', which opens

   Who can face encounter               who must face it
   listen in the forest where the voices we want to hear
   are not people's but of The                                            in uit
                                                                       made
                                                    out of the glade

Just as 'technique' in Clare was something of a side-issue: whatever rhyme that came to hand, but so often getting the right word (often a word from local dialect that would have been unknown to other contemporary poets), Simms writes with whatever method comes to hand, but situated in a very different field from Clare, very aware of poetics after Bunting and Pound. Breathless and unpunctuated streams of syntax are employed like rubble and riprap in poems like A Celebration of the Stones in a Water-Course and Parfleche. There are sudden eruptions of insistent rhyme

                                          A grey period with each bar
   finding new veils               ajar                  -seeming-to-be-dark again with
   flowers on the east-facing verges awake               black winds break to dark green
   planted pine in a funeral evergreen                         reminding me of carrageen
                          ('Parfleche 100')

and of meter:

   With the caracoids of dinosaurs his coracle is clavicled
                         ('The Compression of the Bones of Crazy Horse 134')

as well as collagings of work from schoolchildren, Bob Dylan lyrics, signage, whatever comes to hand. I think there is little jeer that can be called a deliberate or individual aesthetics, there is only opportunity, what comes to hand. But this does not matter, Simms is not trying to represent anything apart from the experience he is committed to. Other poets may question the value of subjective experience or the ontology of nature, but these are the wrong questions to address to this poetry. Simms is as close as we can get to nature poetry within a post-natural aesthetics.

         Giles Goodland 2006