Various Violences, Other Bodies: A Review of Kevin Simmonds’s Bend To It

Weston Cutter


Bend To It
by Kevin Simmonds
Salmon Poetry
84 pp





Kevin Simmonds’s Bend To It begins with the poem “no need for salvation” which is reproduced here in its entirety:


we began as trees

no wonder we ache

for wine-filled branches

forgiven nothing

no lips for why


Lots of what Simmonds is doing throughout Bend is introduced here: the book is fluent in ache and wonder, full of things not forgiven (but, in the process of hoping for or seeking absolution, things are at least fully recognized, acknowledged for What They Are), full of lips which can’t quite spill out any potential glory to be found in causality and, instead, offer more uncomfortable truths (in “Book of Acts,” he writes “Any way I can make mercy / so you’ll stop / asking for it.”). Simmonds is whom you go to to hear, for instance, “The body is essentially all throat” (from “koan in San Francisco”): he’s a writer deep at work in finding the juncture of song and body, spirit and form, in looking for the seamed moment where the daily, bloody, gravelly grind of being alive transubstantiates into the necessary magic of art.

And make no mistake: Simmonds’ stuff is not quite gory, but there’s guts here: there’s a section of the “final songs” of Andrew Cunanan (the murderer who killed Versace), and there’s Traded Moons, a set of poems centered around “Sex trafficking of Native American women & girls.” Japan comes up often (which is one of Simmonds’s two homes, there and San Francisco), from characters and koans to the poem “You can’t put it out with water,” a brief, fragmentary poem which makes much more sense once you read, in the notes, that “millions of sunflowers were planted to absorb radioactive toxins released from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.” What I mean is: the book casts wide; the self that Simmonds is writing from is large, multivoiced, variously exposed (in every sense).

Such multiplicity makes the book almost overwhelmingly inclusive—almost, at times, to the point that a reader might wonder what ties things together. Not, of course, that any book needs to be perfectly coherent, that each poem should lead inexorably to the next like some patterened thing, but Bend To It is so wide, so inclusive, it can feel (at times) hard to figure where its heart it. This has something to do with the brevity of the poems and the chiseled fineness of the lines (which lines are often something like gnomic, or gnarled: they feel and read very tight; there’s not a lot of breathy narration to just sort of stroll your way through), but also something to do with the sections and chapters: the book’s divided quite a lot, the longest section running only a dozen pages.

All that said, however, I’d argue the point of Bend To It, the thing it’s actually doing, is making a sort of symphonic attempt at unity. Just over halfway through the book, Simmonds offers an “ars poetica”:


I can write a poem

to the limbs of a grandmother

seeded in a scorched field

where her house stood

before the drone


I can write as her left arm singing

to its hand

calm now, she’s gone


Some man

I’m almost certain

it’s a man

can write a memo

about this field

left foot tapping impatiently


His memo isn’t a poem

but who said it had to be


What’s fantastic about this (again) tight, (again) brief-ish poem is the way it tries to get at two things, far as I can see. First, it acknowledges the way Simmonds is at work trying to get to something that could maybe be called the indivisibile moment of music: can the poem be the severed arm singing, almost paternal, to the hand once it’s been cut from the body? Is that too small a moment, an idea, a feeling, for music to reside in? Second, the poem attempts to posit something about poetry versus meaning, about song versus making sense, and the limits there: the man, writing a memo about a drone’s attack site, isn’t writing poetry, “but who said it had to be,” Simmonds asks at the end, seemingly, possibly, arguing that poetry’s the other force, the other sense-making task available after trauma, after cataclysm.

Bend To It is the final line from the poem “bent,” a poem that struggles through—with brief, hard lines—a father’s rejection of his son, “this sissy he / tries forgetting.” The poem comes around, at the end, with the son imagining, hoping, believing that his father’s actually, maybe, saying “The sissy in you / I gave to you // That way you are / I crave / That way you are / bend to it.” The book is filled with this work, this other-singing, offering this almost complementary music, poetry which traces the contours of various violences, other bodies. However sharp and/or jagged the book can occasionally feel, it offers an abundance of clarity, a poetry of witness that looks terrifyingly closely at its subjects.