Book Review

Journal of a Flatlander by Don Kimball. Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2009. $14.00

Reviewed by Sarah Busse

In Verse Wisconsin 102, poet Matthea Harvey shared her belief that “poems tend to have instructions for how to read them embedded in their language.”Reading Don Kimball’s chapbook, Journal of a Flatlander, I’m tempted to believe that the very first (title) poem carries those instructions for us, not only for the poem, but for the chapbook as a whole. As he tells us, his people—and by extension, himself, do everything in order. They make sure their boots are tied. They plow “precise/ parallel lines” and are “sure of foot.” Surely I’m not going too far to see these puns as a statement of ars poetica, a commentary on Kimball’s own approach.

Perhaps because I too am a flatlander, I find a lot to appreciate in this approach, and this chapbook. The poems are nearly all formal, with a preponderance of sonnets and poems that bear the sonnet’s imprint. Although by and large these are not my favorites of his work, there are some moments that leap off the page, like an image of books “sprouting Post-its, like disheveled hair, / books do what books are bound to do, they claim / their dusty lairs…” Nice punning on “bound,” and isn’t that image of the post-its perfect? At least, in my books that’s how it looks, exactly. Perhaps you have tidier shelves than I.
In general, Kimball, like many of us, is strongest when he insists on brevity in his poems—either by demanding his lines to be shorter than pentameter, and/or including fewer of them. One of the strongest poems is a poem to his brother who drowned in 1966. Here we find Kimball writing a sonnet where the lines are appropriately abbreviated to tetrameter, paralleling fate “tossing us four instead of five,” with his brother’s death. His bleak and oblique questioning of God “What author worth his name—unless / it only be his first attempt, / and he some minor deity / still incomplete…” rings exactly true to the poem. Movingly, this sonnet is chopped short, with thirteen lines instead of fourteen.

Family appears to be one of Kimball’s surest muses. His “Prayer for My Father” is another strong poem, and one of the ones I’ll keep in my mind longest. I like it so much, I’m including it with this review. With its cadenced lines, its strong sensual evoking of winter, and its beautiful resolution, it’s well worth many a reading.

As for poetic family, he mentions a few poets in the book, but the ghost he wrestles most is Robert Frost. “The Visit” and “Birch” both reference, in different ways, Frost’s poems and legacy, and characters and monologues such as those found in “Milk Can,” and “Jilted,” hearken back to Frost’s New England characters. I find I’m rarely completely convinced of Kimball’s speakers when they are not closely related to his own voice. His tone wobbles a bit insecurely between the humorous and the serious, even dramatic…and the reader is unsure whether she is supposed to smile at a poem and the figure in it, or be sympathetic—to be both sympathetic and amused at once is a very difficult balance to pull off. And example of this type of textual confusion is found in “Milk Can”:

As if she’s heard intruders at the door,
but would not trust a lock to keep her safe,
should they come bursting in—who knows what for—
the widow, clutching at her flannel robe,
takes hold of an old milk can…

Most female readers, at least, will raise their eyebrows at the unsympathetic aside.

I will make an exception to this general reservation, however, in “Summation”— the tersely told tale (told in the second person) of a woman who mistakes her son returned home for an intruder and shoots him dead before she realizes who he is.

As the book progresses, poems of domestic life (“Liam, Teething,” “Song for Folding Sheets”) give way to poems of exploration, travel and the arctic. Winter, snow, arctic expanse and cold, these give Kimball some of his most riveting poems, more than the well-farmed valleys he imagines in his first poem. Take poems like “On a Ship, in the High Arctic,” “Sea Bear,” and one of my favorite poems, “Winter Song,” in which he imagines there is an arctic lake outside his house, although he knows it really isn’t, just a neighbor’s pond frozen over, that has

…no fishy smell of salt,
except what salt
a prudent man applies
to black ice on asphalt…

Here, with that word prudent, we’re back to the careful plowman of the first poem. Still, as the poems ends, Kimball admits he dreams

an arctic sea,
enticing me, beyond
these barren trees,
the sweep of arctic winds
and heaps of frozen snow.

It is when Kimball allows himself to stretch into these colder, darker expanses, the “heights” (or depths) he sometimes fears, that I most resonate with his poems. As delightful as his domestic humor can be, as carefully as he lines his poems out, I hope he will keep his eye on the larger seas, whether he remains true to an Arctic muse or ventures in some other direction.

Sarah Busse is a co-editor of Verse Wisconsin. Her chapbook, Given These Magics, is out from Finishing Line Press in 2010.