Sandra Simonds’ eighth book of poetry distinguishes itself with the innovation of an accommodating triptych form: three narrow columns or panels of variously justified verses that occasionally fall under diverse arrangements of single titles or abridge portions of a title into fragments that head each panel. Simonds builds out an architecture that challenges the formal limits of poetry. Each triptych demands the reader breach an impossible encounter with as much of the poem-in-itself as any text allows, while providing a basis to critique its own character as a political statement and commodity.
From this exhilarated shifting and interplay of paratactic and syntactic modes both lyric and narrative emanates dimensions that dwell in the failure of disruption. Simonds offers up the question of identity the very poem struggles with—as outward as inward—to the poet, narrator, and audience. Apparent dualities of whole-part find themselves rejected not in favor of tired deconstruction or relativized cosmopolitanism. Rather, all these modes blur, then disambiguate, to span the biographical and prosaic, commercial and ecological, epiphanic and oracular, scholarly and theoretical.
As Simonds constantly asks us to assess the identity of the poem’s speaker, we’re asked to question seemingly factual statements and popular assumptions. The cultural critique implicit in Triptychs cuts much deeper into what gives rise to the totalizing tribalism of contemporary political discourse and the culture at large. Amid other contemporary references, both the forty-fifth president and coronavirus appear within the book, in a moment of mock self-censorship in the poem “The Password / Is HexKey / 526” that includes three columns of decreasing length all in strike-through text, with an appended “Update” that relates with supreme economy how the former president caught coronavirus and the speaker saw “a pod of dolphins” as they had wished. But the implications of using both intoxication and forgetting as a coping strategy for cultural trauma emerge in “At Riverside // and Avondale” later in the collection. Behind the imperative “Let’s get fucked up / and forget the / pandemic” lie concerns about the historical situation and site of the poem’s composition, whether we should identify the author with the narrator, and whom the speaker (or poem) intends to invite to such a bacchanal.
A key to understanding Simonds’ project with this book appears in a subtly modified quote from art historian TJ Clark, which informs the latter two thirds of the title of one of the shortest triptychs of Simonds’ book: “Double Happiness or / ‘Modernity / Means Contingency.’” As if to complicate a fractal, the quote in question appears with “modernity” itself in quotes in a New Left Review article from April of 2012, wherein Clark, quoting his own earlier book, proposes a deeper reconstruction of liberal Enlightenment, calling for a left politics that can give up the political dimension of capitalism as well as the utopian ideals of revolution to embrace the tragedy of progressive magnanimity’s failure to defeat the military-industrial complex’s permanent warfare state. Simonds appears to take Clark seriously—and farther.
Though the modern subject may never be truly capable of civilization, as Clark contends, Simonds illustrates how we are nevertheless capable of market participation as consumers pursuing our own satisfaction, such as when “[i]t felt good to cancel / my Audible subscription.” She reminds us both of the cycle of automatic monthly withdrawals that drain checking accounts and the free trial and discount introductory periods we set ourselves reminders to terminate, but the dislocation of this commonplace within the poem also draws attention to the way the verb “cancel” echoes in our culture as normative cultural censorship. Other poems romanticize abstractions of natural landscapes after enjoying sex in a national park. The now-eternal recurrence of pleasure seeking and pain avoidance mark common features upon which market forces hinge, against which greatness of spirit must strive.
Indicative of political critique generally, a hypercritical but ineffective academe—“ossified professors” ensconced in what Simonds calls “ossified institutions” (“I sang a Song with The Dead”)—has become fond of remarking how so-called post-modernity never escaped the projects of its forebear, often following up with echoes of Bruno Latour’s denial of our ever having embodied the projects of modernism. Yet the ivory tower’s analyses, for all their earnestness, can make little if any meaningful shifts in the reproductive tendencies of capital—cultural, political, or economic.
Certainly, the prospect of total destruction by global powers in the atomic age has to mean something. While for Clark it augurs the final doom of warfare everlasting that shrouds the modern subject’s horizon, it constitutes merely one more subject for “books” that Simonds insists “don’t say anything about the politics [she’s] feeling,” which include a forty-year-old body’s menstrual cycle and the blood of childbirth. Which is to say how each particular poem produces a situation that demands what it supplies as well as the needs it never satisfies. We see the wounded human(e) persistence Clark calls for always impending collapse. Flanking a central column, Simonds places one filled with fragmentary invocations of “[a] body in service” and another marked by the ephemeral literature of junk mail. In the former, “A body . . . must ring / to the frequency / of the superpower.” In the latter, Simonds pastes a double-spaced letter addressed to “SANDRA SIMONDS” from Barclays, pledging to serve her while soliciting her opinion on their “products and services.” A comic resolve underwrites the spectacular heroism Clark’s grim analysis misses. The triptychs thus point toward no solution but recast the problem in which they find themselves embroiled as one inextricably linked to the poetic impulse.
Elsewhere, public discourse on global warming takes an earnest focus whilst mixing with both witchier and even chthonic tendencies gaining popular traction in the social media age:
has totally fucked with
ancient spells. We just
ingredients. Where can
you find a lion cub
to slaughter with a
(“Hold! / Said the Hand / Said the Money”)
Notice how the wisdom tradition proffers a solution to the very problem that prevents us from availing ourselves of it. Accepting this tragic contingency of markets, the poem alludes in its title to the invisible hand of commerce while invoking the common language of stock market and blackjack table in a way that echoes early cuneiform writings that amount to receipts, which are the surface upon which Simonds composed the columns that would become these poems.
Literary influences appear in a carnival arcade of overt reference and subtle insinuation. While refusing to ignore the economic, Simonds turns the poem’s attention to investigate cultural formulations through which authors and characters alike become commoditized intellectual properties that can speak or even have romantic affairs, as Jayne Eye and Charles Baudelaire entangle in a tryst across two pages from “Calais to Calcutta” with a stop off in Mauritius before they “some- / how returned to France,” though “[a] love like this can’t / fit into cramped / medieval streets.” Our language eludes a dream of truth, but such reflections steal time from the practical demands of daily life: “Things grow tedious / inside sunsets” (“Gong! / Gong! / Gong!”). In another poem, Simonds recounts “Reading The Bell Jar / In Everglades / National Park.” The influence of New York School poetics following Ashbery and Guest in swathes of linguistic pyrotechnic abstractions as well as moments of O’Hara’s biographical “I-do-this-I-do-that” style emerges in lines like
. . . it is
Saturday 11:55 p.m.
and I’m here to
tell you the deer
troubadours and may-
be so were we
Whether these personalist moments bear the autobiographical gesture of confessionalism remains obfuscated but not unacknowledged by the artificiality of poetry and language alike. One triptych, with the brief title “Dear Anselm,” invokes a suggestion of both the contemporary poet Anselm Berrigan as well as the canonized saint, drawing into the orbit of the book considerations of what constitutes a spiritual or literary canon and including the epistolary genre within its scope.
We’re never privy to more than speculation about how the poet’s consciousness inhabits the poems in a manner other than the way any other character might. Such uncertainty stems from an indeterminacy that may undermine the integrity of the whole, as the structural or systemic particulars of the triptych morph. While each poem functions within the constraints of a title and three columns, these project the book’s contents beyond expected conventions.
At the same time, wistful and mundane moments of relaxation after soaking in a bath culminate in a diatribe aimed at a quartet of egg yolks which may be read to stand in for the reader:
are you looking
at? Am I me?
I could turn
you into custard
if I wanted to,
you in the trash.
I have complete
(“With Joy / With No / Joy”)
Even as the narrator celebrates their power, they question their very identity. Simonds’ work clarifies how poetics gropes forward in its now-celebrated, now-denounced tendency to make nothing happen, which curiously amounts to a kind of legislation of an unrecognizable world. Other moments point back to an interpretation of commerce and economy, which themselves indicate a trace of desire for interpretation:
Coins carry a lust
and their stern
(“March Pandémie [. . .]”
Meanwhile, one column over,
A cheap body is still
a body. A cheap
Aligned with Clark’s aim of eschewing any hope of capitalism as politically soluble, Simonds’ economy disregards austerity in its frenetic dashes across semantic lines but retains a principle of efficiency.
Each triptych provides an ample critique from new and multiple angles of what Clark calls “the heaven of infinite apps” where teachers encounter students on TikTok. Individuality thus delimits the potentials of collective subjectivity. Amid such references, the triptychs blur with conversational snippets and narrative sequences that refuse to anchor. Even personal health consumerism comes to the fore: “I bought / some probiotics / for my vagina” (“Skate / World / Waveform”). The same poem begins with a brief first panel that concludes with the comment “for everyone / knows this poem / is a hole.” Thus, problems of identity draw connections between discourses of practical biology, theoretical physics, and narratological certainty.
Amid the fragmentation, the triptychs allow a reader to imagine assemblages of plausible stories—or at the very least monitor the emergence of similar motifs. A “daymoon” appears in the skies of two different pieces. Likewise a love affair between a narrator and a senator involving a cellphone thrown into the water in “Trashland / Political / Economy” bears similarity to the call that comes from the capitol before the narrator throws their “phone in the St. / John’s River again.” But these relational and astronomical features are only as elevated as a cash withdrawal:
I inserted my
into the slot
and made sure
the machine felt
my erotic, gold chip.
(“Makeup / Ointment / Pollen”)
Yet the scope of the poems appears aware this gesture of insertion and fantasy of controlling the sensations of the machine shares contours with the misogyny taken to task in “At Riverside /and Avondale,” with the question: “Why do men have / to kill the women they / can’t possess in poems?” Such phrasing bears on profound metaphysics of identity and ownership. There’s no arguing with the actuality of killing. Still, questioning whether anyone can ever possess another person—inside poems or out—our economy refuses to complete itself without such conceptions.
Poetry’s perennial motif of divine inspiration and prophecy appear in periodic acknowledgements of the debt the literary text owes to the oracular, epiphanic bardic tradition:
[the typography of
Of stars primeval in-
side the teleported flesh
of each word]
(“And the Days / Shall Be Filled / With Music”)
Replete with Homeric ornithomancy, a “vulture” across from a table “becomes / pro
phecy, an / eclipse” more than simplified spirit or essence, only to let the poet know that “what poets do” is “feast on / the dead.” We’re reminded of the female principle involved in oracular prophecy in “Double Happiness” (which are mentioned as a cigarette brand in another poem), when a narrator who teaches a poet laureate
revolved or revolted
like the diamond
or the oracle spitting \
Even the triptychs resist both paraphrase and quotation, the book insists with sarcastic acumen that such mechanisms of marketing and distribution would never fail to aim book buyers toward itself as a commodity. While every poem accommodates solo or trio vocalization,
or something uncanny
be the leitmotif
of this perverse
Simonds thus concludes the central panel of what seems the longest triptych in the series, “March Pandémie (including nested play, a reminiscence, and light entertainment),” which also presents a thoroughly centered title over only the central column. In the language of this book, Simonds
pressed [her] hand
through some tiny
fissure right into
a past life, from which
only the most persistent
so that “[w]e drive through / polyhedronated structures // of sound and civic-minded lives, bearing fruit [. . .] of human trees” (“The Flammagenitus Strophes”). The potency of such lines as self-referential descriptions indicates what contemporary poetics and aesthetics have inherited from the last century, in the serious and solemn tones of tragicomic irony.
By orchestrating layout and language within the confines of a triadic structure that appears to transcend a naive conception of the dialectic, Simonds’ book effuses the personal, historical, and philosophic conjunctions one expects from their fondest memories of dreams—the sort that touch uncertain emotions and provoke our sense of meaning with new alertness. Of course, the ultimate object of our desire eludes our grasp as soon as we verge on realizing it. And relief comes as we laugh at ourselves losing it.
Triptychs by Sandra Simonds. Seattle: Wave Books, 2022. 96 pp. $18.00, paper.