Seattle and New York
“We are the Spanish Harps, / We certainly hope you like us. / We are the Spanish Harps, / Vwing, Vwing, Vwing.” So ends the first poem in the first book of Susie Timmons’ three-book collection Superior Packets, out this April from Wave Books. The poem is a short, bizarre, gleeful salute from an unGoogleable and possibly fictional entity, and its sing-song echoes of The Beatles (“We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, / We hope you will enjoy the show”) launch me into a world where language seems to have a pulse—writing as writhing, where every line strains to peel off the page and head out to live a life of its own.
Timmons’ voice and style is wide-ranging but consistent across the entire collection of collections, ranging from the 1979 Hog Wild to 2010’s The New Old Paint. To achieve this coherence without repeating oneself or becoming a one-trick pony across three decades and almost 200 pages of poetry is impressive in and of itself—to do it with Timmons’ brilliant, wondering, stranger-on-Earth timbre is almost miraculous. The delight in that first vwing carries forward into an eager exploration of all kinds of expression—onomatopoeia, cussing, dreams, wonder, journaling, storytelling, proclamation, recipe, formula—frequently invoked with a single word or fragment, less often carefully plotted out in long, meandering lines—mostly playful, rarely frivolous. At times, this all-embracing styling left me feeling shut out from a poem grounded in expired cultural referents or concise to the point of confusion, but Timmons’ choices are vivid and evocative enough that even her most opaque poems have something to offer.
Save for the final book, which treads closer to traditional narration and narrative, there’s often no “I” or “you” or “we”—no speaker or addressee—and while there’s often no single tone, a singular voice consistently shines through in each poem. These are poems of foreign grammars and erasure, of experiment without pretension, often abandoning convention and traditional mechanics (consistent punctuation or capitalization, symmetrical or predictable stanza structure, uninterrupted threads of imagery or tone) in favor of a freewheeling, fluid structure, simultaneously spare and dense. Reading Timmons’ work, I get the sense that each poem took either a single sitting to write or else was carved out gradually over impossible centuries, its final arrangement as complicated and inevitable as the Grand Canyon. And though full of symbols, the poems feel anti-symbolist: the poem is what the poem is, naming and renaming the world, refusing translation or summary. They’re full of emotions that don’t have names. They’re impulsive poems, in the most literal sense of the word: they capture an impulse: quick, observant, insightful, and witty.
I’m not sure I’d call this a funny book—plenty of poems left me with a lump in my throat—but Timmons’ humor serves as a point of access for many of the poems in Superior Packets. While many moments have a simple, innocent quality that resists anything but a sincere reading (e.g., “the smiling sun goes down / behind a frowning cloud” in the epic “Scabby Legs,” 13), much of Timmons’ humor collides that type of childlike observation with the absurd. She invokes and inverts cliché, points out the unseen obvious, and is matter-of-fact with her subjectivity:
“There’s nothing / a ghost hates / more than complaining” ("Finity," 22)
“A man is dead, he was antique / his death was antique” ("Obit," 24)
“If pillows were people they’d always be sleeping” ("Where I Left Off," 33)
“Cramps Are Like Goats” ("Cramps Are Like Goats," 46)
“good kissing or making out is the same as condensed rockabilly” ("Fulcrum of Disaster," 128)
“I don’t get sculpture at all / though it is allegedly gratifying on multiple levels” ("Blaze Fire, Shock, Clove," 53)
“Poem” employs a more visual humor: a formidable column of famous authors’ names—CHAUCER, SHAKESPEARE, SPENSER, MILTON, BLAKE, KEATS—seems to physically shove aside Timmons’ concrete nouns “foil,” “water,” “rose petals,” “shadows,” and “statehood.” The literary giants become jesters barring the narrator from the task of narrating (48). Later on, “Horrible Valentine” (119) delivers its promise from the start:
flap flop flap flop inside my head
poignant foam rubber bells
of true love
made of candy lipstick
smeared on the wall
This humor might seem ironic or blithe in another writer’s hands, but in Timmons’ it’s almost always effective because the humor seem to take itself seriously. “Tiny Tears,” for example, opens with a darkly comedic confession:
Tiny Tears, I loved you
so much I cut off your
fingers and toes
with my safety scissors
Timmons’ line breaks mimic a standup’s timing as the poem moves from affection to violence to unexpected context. Instead of continuing in this vein, however, Timmons ends the poem with an undeniably earnest apology:
Later on, I thought it was
funny to put your head
on Barbie’s body.
I’m sorry, and I’m really sorry
about that time I left you out in the backyard
This ending leaves the reader bittersweetly trapped between the absurdity of the opening confession and the image of the presumably incompatible Tiny Tears’ head on Barbie’s body, and the real regret in the narrator’s voice (despite, of course, the triviality of leaving a doll in the rain and the presumption of the doll’s emotion and memory).
It’s a brave move to embrace this kind of irreverence without actually telling jokes. The absence of setups and punchlines to signal her humor is risky, because readers might miss it altogether. By committing to her sense of humor, Timmons is trusting the reader—and it’s that trust that’s brave. Braveness carries through all three books. Sometimes it takes a political form, especially in the feminist stances scattered throughout the collection, e.g., “I get so mad at this abuse / the insistence of being more lure, / alluring” ("The Insistence of More Lure," 83). At other times, Timmons’ braveness lies in unmasking her undeniably unconventional thinking—not, it seems, out of an attempt to entertain us with her quirkiness, but out of a desire to dutifully and truthfully record her thoughts. In “Hermit Girl of Venus," for example: “This scenario depicts myself as a flying mermaid / defending a petite lingerie shop from attack / by several unattractive flying mermaids / one of them an evil queen with an ash blonde beehive hair-do” (63). Or “Danger Ranger,” which explores a tremendously weird scenario:
The idea from last night was,
you’re in a room waving
when your arm flies off.
So then you’re calm cool and collected
and go call an ambulance.
But now your other arm wants to go too!
Then punches you to death cause you won’t let it.
I also love “For Eileen”—Myles?—with its conversational, banal straightforwardness, a quality equally brave: “after speaking with you on the phone this morning / went out,” “Huge perfect snowflakes stuck to my mittens / to my gloves,” “winter won’t be here forever, but / I don’t feel like I want to tell myself a lot of / lies about what’s going to happen when spring comes,” and—maybe most revealingly—“there’s no division / between my present and my childhood / I’ve always been myself, same as I was” (45).
Another through-line of access: a kind of treasure hunt through Timmons’ hypersaturated alien diction. The poems are the “gorgeous knot of words” that “hovers before my face / when I fall asleep” ("Rabbits Broke the Wall," 142), or “joyous abandon approached in increments” ("Avenger, Avenging Spectre Pauses, Contemplates, Grows Calm," 77), or “lush particulars” ("Little Life, Belgrade," 74), or “Fragment[s] structured according to a set of criteria” ("Drawn to Garbage, Drawn to Flame," 81), or “crazy / pastiche” ("Inadequate Questions," 57), or Timmons is “extrapolating whatever exists / within my narrow frame of vision” ("Sensitive Divider," 49). So many of these poems bristle with the excitement of discovery—we realize something, rush to write it down, and realize even more about it as we’re writing. The narrator of “From the Middle of the Road” chronicles this hunger directly: “hurts my teeth, to be so ignorant / of all the rooms in this / magnificent palace” (147).
Superior Packets is a joy to read—lucid, celebratory, enchanting, unpretentious, overabundant, sieve-like, epiphanic, bloodhounding, and imbued with a quick-witted voice that embodies and celebrates the fundamental universals we lose in the dailiness of our lives: how thoughts and feelings and experiences form, how they move, and what they might look like in their primordial state, pre-speech, when they’re still what we mean to say and not what we think people want to hear. Timmons: “beyond all the good or bad stuff is where you / find the thoughts you can really strangle and bruise” ("Shopping Spree," 55). Yes.
Gelman is a California Arts Scholar, the inaugural poet-in-residence at UCSD's Brain Observatory, and recipient of the 2013 Mary Barnard Academy of American Poets Prize and the 2013 Lavinia Winter Fellowship. She has new work in Indiana Review, The Awl, the PEN Poetry Series, Swarm, and elsewhere, and is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone (Write Bloody, 2014). Find her at www.annelysegelman.com.