Kimonos in the Closet, by David Shumate. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 72 pages. $15.95, paper.
Organized in thematic clusters, the poems in David Shumate’s Kimonos in the Closet are poems of exchange—cultural, historical, mythological, and personal. Shumate has long occupied a prominent place in the world of prose poetry, but his prose poems ring differently from those of other practitioners of the form. They do not often systematically derange the senses, though they certainly provide vivid sensory stimulation. It’s easier to imagine the speaker setting sail on his desk, as the speaker of the first poem in Kimonos does, than dreaming at the controls of a cast-iron aeroplane. Yet Shumate’s poems are still mesmerizing, and they are disorienting in a way that gently shakes readers, waking them and welcoming them into the strangeness of being present. Not only do exchanges occur in the poems, but using casual, conversational language, the poems themselves are exchanges. These are the prose poems of the American heartland, but they don’t live in isolation. The speakers travel through space and time, returning with new visions, but like the speaker of “In the Company of the Bedouins,” they know when it’s time to go home.
Kimonos in the Closet begins, “Again this morning my desk sets sail like a schooner from its harbor.” Echoing Seamus Heaney’s famous poem “Digging,” the speaker rows “with only a pen.” After sailing for weeks, he approaches an island, where the natives “paddle out in their long canoes to escort (him) to their shores where their shaman is waiting.” Although he calls the speaker “son,” the shaman says he’s “shorter than (he) seemed in his vision. With a little less hair.” “The Art of the Moors,” another nautical poem, follows “My Desk Sets Sail” and dramatizes this kind of encounter from the opposite perspective: the Moors send their artists to “us,” to fill our churches, schoolhouses, and subways “with floral patterns” that “come directly from the divine.” Shumate ends the poem:
They seem anxious to join us on the piers. The choice is ours. Shower them with flowers. Or place sentinels on the shore.
These two poems introduce the dynamic of exchange that plays out throughout the collection in various places. Of course, the poems also contain a political subtext that frames current events in a broader context, snatching the cover from our spatio-temporal cage.
Kimonos extracts several historical figures from the past and places them in the omnipresent. “Lincoln” begins, “If it weren’t for the photographs, you might think Aeschylus or Euripides had made him up. Or that he was one of those biblical fellows tormented to the brink of what a soul can bear.” In these lines, Lincoln rises from the photograph to the timeless realm of myth. After listing Lincoln’s woes, including “Gettysburg, Antietam, both Bull Runs, four long years of war, more than half a million dead, a wife moaning on the balconies, a child in the grave,” the speaker wonders “why hasn’t his hair turned pure white?” The question pertains to the photograph and Lincoln’s actual life, but it also suggests that Lincoln still lives. In the book’s penultimate poem, “The Last Nazi,” Shumate reminds us of time’s power to render even horror absurd, but the horror transcends individual memory, and although the last Nazi can hardly recall “those soldiers goose stepping down the boulevards,” he is still identified as a Nazi at the end of the poem. The poem happens inside and outside of time, and our stories and histories outlive us, so they encompass us, not we them.
In “The Man Who Made the Minotaur Up,” Shumate creates a meta-myth, writing, “It’s likely he did not have the head of a bull.” The mythmaker, like the short, balding poet in “My Desk Sets Sail,” turns out to be a rather feeble old man. Imagining a visit to the old man’s house, Shumate writes:
Then he’d come hobbling down the corridor. From a distance he might even seem bulbous and filled with rage. Huffing and snorting and stomping at the floor. As he drew closer you’d see all that heft was just the blankets he’d wrapped around his frail body to stay warm. The stomping came from the cane he planted with each step to keep from falling down. And what seemed like the bellowing of some monster was only him coughing and wheezing after sitting by an open window too long.
The strong mythological beast serves as a kind of compensation for its maker’s weakness, and it lives independently of him. While acknowledging the frailty of the author, Shumate also makes a myth of him, bringing him into the same timeless realm of his creation.
“Bringing Things Back from the Woods” serves as the best example of what Shumate does so well in Kimonos in the Closet:
Each time I wander into the woods, I bring something back with me. Antlers. Toppled nests. Stones smoothed by streams. The mating call of a wren.
Then, “the spirits of the forest” start “following (him) home.” These spirits watch TV, bump into the speaker’s wife, and test the shower. They rearrange his “dreams with their lower branches” and instigate “a rebellion among our wooden furniture making it nostalgic for the forest,” which leads to a chair “growing back its bark,” a beam sprouting leaves, and the speaker’s desk taking root. The speaker takes parts of nature, and nature takes parts of the speaker’s house. His entire house does not become the woods, but the woods are there. Things start to metamorphose into their original wild states, but the metamorphosis is not complete. The everyday is still present and visible. The worlds in Shumate’s poems co-exist.
“Chagall’s Blue Horse” and “Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights,” two ekphrastic poems, stand out as the strongest in the collection. The “blue horse arrives in (the speaker’s) dreams” and takes him to see his “young grandfather” and “people of notoriety … Napoleon. Cleopatra. And Buddha.” The horse takes him to “the edge of the universe where (he) watche(s) the dark womb squeeze another galaxy out.” The poem ends:
Sometimes the blue horse carries me to a pasture deep inside myself. He grazes there a while. Then lifts his head. And turns. As if trying to teach me something so obvious, no one ever thought to give it a name.
In addition to demonstrating the artistic exchange between poets and painters, this knockout ending shows one thing that great art does: it takes the viewers, readers, or listeners inside themselves to reveal a world that exists both inside and outside of them. “Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights” shows another thing that great art does. The poem begins, “I’ve never been invited to an orgy. And seeing all this makes me feel like I’ve been missing out.” The speaker observes “folks … walking around with fruit atop their heads and nestled up next to their groins as if we are all part orchard anyway.” The speaker understands that “this is supposed to end badly” and that “in the next scene they will be the remorseful victims of unspeakable decay.” “But,” he concludes, “let’s linger here a little longer like the artist would have wanted us to.” Without denying the “unspeakable decay,” Shumate’s poems draw us to the pleasures of being here.
Jordan Sanderson grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His work has appeared in several journals, including Better: A Journal of Culture and Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Red Earth Review, burntdistrict and Caketrain, and he is the author of two chapbooks, The Formulas (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Abattoir (forthcoming from Slash Pine Press). Jordan’s critical work has appeared in The Hollins Critic, Heavy Feather Review, and Alehouse, among other journals. He currently lives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.