While no contemporary poet possesses Parker’s saber-sharp wit, modern poetry isn’t devoid of funny versifiers. Think, for example, of Denise Duhamel’s Queen for a Day with its riffs on Barbie (as a bisexual, as a soldier, as a bored housewife). Think of former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, whose light touch, even on weighty subjects such as the atom bomb, is designed to encourage a smile
And think, too, of the Peace Corps’ own Margaret Szumowski, who isn’t afraid to take aim at our funny bones.
Don’t get me wrong. The vast majority of Szumowski’s new poems aren’t intended to be funny. They succeed in ways other than eliciting laughs. But the poems here that do attempt the comedic succeed wonderfully.
Unlike with, say, Duhamel, whose success has more to do with her quirky look at pop culture than with her way with words, Szumowski’s humor comes from her use of language or languages, in her collection’s most memorable case. Former Peace Corps Volunteers in French-speaking countries will surely delight in “Men in Love with Parisiennes.” Here’s a taste, the poem’s first stanza:
Some handsome friend of mine says French
women vraiment “know how to dress.”
they do, that we do not? French women
steal our men.
And while I would hate to spoil the poem’s ending, I will offer this reassurance: Italian men enter to offer a fitting counterpart to men-stealing French women.
What’s remarkable about “Men in Love” is the trust the poet places in her readers. Nearly the entire last stanza is in French. It takes faith to think readers who don’t know French will see the poem to its finish. But equally as remarkable: This reader, who hasn’t studied French since eighth grade, understood it perfectly. And laughed!
The other prime example of Szumowski’s humor at work is “Taking His Name in Translation,” a rhapsody on the author’s married name. Quick: name a contemporary poet who has made recent comedic use of onomatopoeia. Put Szumowski on the list:
Margaret Szumowski loves the mouth
of her last name,
the zoom that gave her the last name,
the zoom that gave her the oom, the
oom pah pah
of a lover, the zooming in of a morning
lover, the zoo
of marriage and children, the oom of
delicious self again and again . . .
While most of Szumowksi’s other poems in this book don’t aim for comedic heights the ways these two do, others are not without a celebratory quality that is at least in the same metaphysical neighborhood as humor. In “Falling in at Summer School,” she writes of two young women (one presumably the poet herself) who, during an Iowa City summer, “took the wrong courses, met the wrong men.”
And yet by summer’s end, or at least poem’s end, “One man/leaned me so far over the water to kiss me,/I thought I’d fall in.”
There are, too, poems of dead seriousness, the kind of poems one might hear recited at anti-war rallies. “Beauty Pageant in Sarajevo” should be read for its exquisite observations and heartbreaking ending. “She is a Nation” spares the reader nothing in its portrait of brutality and offers this poignant truth:
A nation where suddenly
those who live close together,
slice down their neighbors,
neighbors so close the killers
are cutting their very own throats.
Aren’t we all cutting our own throats nowadays?
Is there anything not to like in Szumowski’s collection? Well, I’m not as fond of the poems here seeped in religion and religious imagery. But this objection has little to do with the poems themselves and more to do with my general wariness about the way religion has come to dominate our world. I’m with John Lennon: Imagine there’s no heaven.
But I’m guessing that Szumowski’s with him, too. Or at least one of the book’s final poems, “Christ Goes Out in the World,” in which Jesus is resurrected in Italy, leads me to think so. In the poem, Christ has returned to the world, but no one notices him except the poem’s speaker, who offers him bread and chocolate to go with his coffee. And Christ has one request of the speaker a kiss, “a good one.”
How different might the world look if its religions preached only the power of a kiss?
Before closing, I should add this note: Szumowski is so at ease with the formal poem that their forms are barely noticeable. A couple of times I read a poem oblivious to its form only to return to it again and think, “Ah-hah I see the rhyme scheme now!”
Also, and this seems important as well: While her poems are intelligent and require an active engagement on the part of the reader (a few of Billy Collins’ poems can be read with one eye on the television), they are never purposefully unintelligible or so esoteric as to be unreadable.
Szumowski’s book is as beautiful outside as it is inside. Tupelo Press does gorgeous work. This is a book to own, to read, to re-read.