Peace Corps Writers
  Two books of poetry (page 2)
       Nowhere is Szumowski’s wit more in evidence than in the third section of I Want This World. “At the Fancy Feet Boutique With My Punk Ballerina” is an exasperated yet sensitive look at a young woman’s effort to find her place in the world. Although the poem’s heroine “dresses like death’s bailiff,” her appearance belies her physical grace. In the four concluding lines of this lyric, the narrator’s understanding of her daughter is turned on end. The girl with “blackish-purple hair” and “ears with seven holes” is transformed when performing:

    Stronger than I knew,
    she lifts her whole self,
    rises en pointe,
    body wiser than the mouth..

     In the concluding section, Szumowski shows how experiences overseas can be the stuff of rich literature. “Incident on the Gondar Road” will resonate with returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Instead of reaching the Blue Nile, as they’d set off to do, the “dumb Yanks” who narrate the poem hit an old man who stepped in front of their car. Their destination is altered, as they have to travel to Addis Abada to find a doctor. The poem never says it outright, but its implication is clear. The trip with the old man represents a special journey in its own right:

    Anyway, you should have seen the old man staring
    at Addis. Tall buildings, fast cars, women — he loved it!

     If Szumowski’s poems are strong because of the stories they tell and their pointed, tender observations mixed with humor, Meek’s The Circumference of Arrival succeeds because of its intense language and intelligent, sometimes brilliant juxtaposition of objects and ideas. Her chapbook’s title sums up her approach. Usually we gauge our “arrival” in terms of miles or kilometers, but Meek is interested in an arrival’s “circumference.” Immediately we know we’re in the hands of a poet who will look at the world in a distinct way, examining the rounded while poets of less vivid imagination might concentrate on the straight and narrow.
     And if Szumowski’s focus is on the personal, Meek’s is on the metaphysical. In “Seventh Year,” she writes,

    No one knows if cicada dream the earth
    as original erasure, or long for the dark
    airless cradles . . .

And in “Driving the Desert,” she writes,

    Dawn, no rain, nothing
    spilling the sky’s hourglass, sand a horizontal rush
    belief stalls, believing
    itself the movement . . .

The narrators in Meek’s poems seem incidental. Larger forces — time, destruction, death, the life impulse — drive her work. “Evolution, Lambertsbaii, South Africa, 1992” is a meditation on the borders between land, sky and sea and the creatures who inhabit each domain. It opens with a girl on the beach and concludes with “penguins taking the first wobbling human steps to shore.”
     Meek’s strengths as a poet are particularly evident in “Dune #7,” in which a sand dune stands as a symbol of our passage across history. Here Meek displays both her precise descriptive skills (a raincoat is “a stork’s wings umbrellaed open”) and her metaphysical concerns. The dune, like our life’s journey, is continually being transformed, and Meek writes, “ . . . What is/is never the same . . .” Even as sand erases “the way out,” the narrator concludes “we will never leave.” This, Meek seems to say, is the way life is lived, forever forward, with history dissolving behind us. The poem ends, “I think we have always been/here, wandering this crushed bone.”
     Good poems offer a means toward reflection and repose. And whether during the Great Depression or in the aftermath of September 11th, poems can comfort us with their wisdom and delight us with their ingenious use of language. Szumowski and Meek have written fine books filled with poems to elevate our minds and moods.

Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala and Steal My Heart, both works of fiction. An assistant professor of English at West Virginia University, he has published poetry in The Sun, Notre Dame Review, Slant: A Journal of Poetry and other literary magazines.
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