Peace Corps Writers
Review
 Read the Peace Corps Writers interview with these two poets and two other RPCV poets.
I Want This World
by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74, Ethiopia 1974–75)
Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, $13.95
78 pages
2001
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  The Circumference of Arrival
by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)
Minneapolis: Elixir Press, $7.00
     P.O. Box 18010
     Minneapolis, MN 55418
21 pages
2001
  The Circumference of Arrival
 
  Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)
 
  DURING A PREVIOUS TROUBLED TIME in American history, President Herbert Hoover said that what the country needed was a good poem. It’s hard to imagine George W. Bush making a similar pronouncement, but if he were to do so, he might follow it by pointing readers to two recent collections by returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
     Margaret Szumowski’s I Want This World and Sandra Meek’s The Circumference of Arrival are filled with good poems. Szumowski has more of them, but only because hers is a full-length book whereas Meek’s is a chapbook. Both volumes feature careful, vivid language, keen intelligence and, in Szumowski’s case, a welcome wit.
     I Want This World is several books in one. The early poems center around Szumowski’s father and mother and their perilous hold on life in Eastern Europe before and during World War II. Another part of the book examines life in the Rio Grande Valley. A third section is highlighted by poems written about a younger generation. The last section, with its wonderful concluding poem, “Ngorogoro, the Crater,” contains what might be called Peace Corps poems — sharp, sensitive evocations of life abroad.
     Szumowski beautifully evokes her father in “The Trickster.” In each succeeding stanza, one line longer than its predecessor, her father becomes more elusive. He is evoked in the first stanza as having “hoodwinked the Germans,” in the second as living off wild onions and in the third as playing chess in the top bunk of a place in which “they locked you in to die.” By the fourth and final stanza, however, Szumowski’s father threatens to perform his disappearing act on her. Naturally, she rebels:

    I want you in the flesh.
    I will be your fiercest guard,
    make a stout cage of these arms.

     Szumowski is adept at probing the metaphorical resonance of commonplace items, especially foods. In “The Potato,” she traces the tuber’s significance to both her parents’ generation and her own. In both cases, the potato represents a kind of endurance and, therefore, assumes a holy place in her family’s world:

    Never forget the white church of their insides
    melted butter anointing them.

Szumowski displays a sensitive eye in capturing landscapes. “Borders,” in the book’s second section, paints a picture of both sides of the Rio Grande, first Brownsville, “where trees flame and the sun/beats blood-red through palms,” then the Mexican side:

    Here are the men pushing carts,
    orange and yellow fruit, big jars
    of pink, green, purple juices.

     The poet’s subtle wit is in evidence in this poem as well. It concludes with an observation travelers to countries south of the United States will no doubt have made themselves:

    Everywhere people tell me
    what I’m looking for is just
    two blocks away.

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