Reclaim What Is Ours: Sandra Simonds’s Steal It Back
Steal It Back
by Sandra Simonds
96 pp / $15
In her latest book, Sandra Simonds issues the imperative: steal it back. Take back what is rightfully yours–what has been stolen by the landlords and the bosses, stolen by the demands of others. Set against the backdrop of late capitalism, in an America of pink slime hamburgers and burnt-out Best Buys, Steal It Back offers a panacea to the soul-crushing work many people face day in and day out and reminds us that we are more than the sum of our debts.
Here in her fourth full-length collection of poems, Simonds continues to deliver what readers have come to expect from her–a display of mental pyrotechnics that result in smart, messy poems that offer sharp critiques of American life while being both funny and heartbreaking. There’s something refreshing about the voice that emerges through this collection–the speaker comes across as a real, nuanced person who, like so many of us, is just trying to make her way through the world, fight back against what is holding her down, and hopefully discover moments of joy along her journey. Further, the voice is self-assured and not afraid to make declarations.
The poems in this collection are largely centered on the domestic. As Simonds writes in “Glass Box”: “This is just the diary of / an ordinary woman or ‘mom’ living at the beginning of the 21st / century.” While the poems do make note of mundane, daily items such as the baby’s weight, rent checks, and what’s for dinner, there is a wild unpredictability that propel the poems forward. Simonds’ poems are open to distraction and impulse, exemplified in “I Grade Online Humanities Tests” which jumps from the work of grading (“No Cervantes / did not write ‘Because I Could Not / Stop for Death’”), to bits of overheard conversation, to text messages with her mechanic, and so forth. All of these things swirl about in a maelstrom in the poem that feels on the verge of unhinging yet somehow remains centered. Perhaps what is most amazing is how for someone who must be exhausted–who, in addition to raising small children, “spent the night making a presentation for / faculty senate on our retirement package and our / promotion system,” and who is finding ways to steal time to work on a poem, even sometimes paying for it (“In order to write this poem, / I paid daycare $523 / for the week”)–Simonds again and again captures a chaotic energy in her poems.
The frenetic pace at which the poems move mirrors the messiness of life and captures a restless mind–one that easily jumps from daily tasks to Renaissance paintings and classic literature. Like Hamlet, the speaker addresses Horatio numerous times in the collection, and Dante makes an appearance, though it’s “the dream Dante has of the eagle that swoops / his little body from the Middle Ages and places it / in a burnt-out Best Buy.” The speaker says she has been “abandoned in the humanities” and regularly references teaching the humanities. In one humorous section, “Alice,” perhaps a stand-in for Simonds herself, is listening to U2 on her headphones: “What? Well, not / everyone in a poem / can have good taste.” This section continues:
Nostradamus says, “Bring to
my table the flesh
of this lake’s
“But, Nostradamus, she left town
yesterday with a sign
taped to her
chest that says
Give blood, get a
chance to win
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The inclusion of high and low brow, the collapsing of the Middle Ages into the contemporary, and the unpredictability is all part of the pleasure of reading Simonds work. Even at its most serious, there is a great richness to the tapestry of the poems. Pleasure can be found in restlessness, unease, and struggle.
The restlessness Simonds exhibits throughout the collection is also something she wishes for her children, as she writes in “A Poem for Landlords”:
I have been thinking
of the body of my three-year old
and how it is so new and unstable
and how I don’t want him to ever feel
happy in this world.
I don’t mean it like that.
I want him to feel joy
but not happy in the sense
that he feels content.
Later, in the same poem, she writes of her daughter:
I want to feel joy and I want
my little infant to feel joy
and I don’t want her
to grow to be happy.
I don’t mean it like that.
I want her to feel joy
when she walks in a forest
or by a river looking at birds.
If she feels one day
a “seething contempt,”
I will be proud of her for I shall know
she is my daughter.
She wishes for her children to never become tax collectors and hopes that they will feel contempt for landlords the same way she feels contempt for landlords.
In “Similitude at Versailles,” Simonds asks, “What could pass as love inside capital?” And answers: “Maybe just these records, the real.” And in the final lines of the collection, she declares, “I know what is real / and I know how to steal / back what is mine.” The poems that comprise the collection are records, are real, and of course are also the result of “stealing it back”–the author’s theft of time to create, time to put art first. Because time is always limited, the poems carry with them a great urgency. It’s now or never. The language spills forth in a profuse outpouring, letting loose what has been kept in as one moves through life, confined to the daily tasks and tedium of work, bills, and family. For this reason, the imperative “steal it back” is of vital importance. It gives us a way to go on. In “A Poem For Landlords,” Simonds identifies as the juvenile delinquent she has always been and always will be, “even when / I’m very old because / for whatever reason / that simply could not / be beaten out of me,” and we should be thankful that it hasn’t been. It’s this attitude–this willingness to rebel, this self-righteous anger–that makes this work so joyful and so necessary