Review by Lisa Bower

by Tim Suermondt


The Backwaters Press
3502 North 52nd St.
Omaha, NE 68104-3506
ISBN: 0978578295
104 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Tim Suermondt's poetry collection, Trying to Help the Elephant Man Dance is a collage of pop culture, history, and commonplace items like grilled cheese. As playful as it is complex, the collection marries humor with philosophy, and the result is a collection that is as conversational and relaxed as it is complex and mysterious. As the collection's title implies, the poems in this collection are spaces where the absurd can thrive. Suermondt takes day-to-day life and makes it mystical. Culture and its nuances are interconnected. Consequently, poems focusing on Fidel Castro, The Rangers, and a dying mother can exist in the same book. This collection's poems explain how nothing exists in a vacuum; everything is real, heartbreaking, and absurd all at the same time.

Suermondt has a talent for exploring the levity behind humor. Many of this collection's poems explore the absurdity of life, but they also explore its turmoil. He explores the way life is perceived and processed in the poem, The Brooklyn Patient:

If this were a movie,
the audience would
rush for the exits.
I would too,
but how does someone
rush out of their own body?
And why are the movies
never like real life?
And why is real life
never like the movies?
Nurse Katzenblume,
come and comfort me.
I know it's an illusion
but let's pretend I'm handsome.
Let's pretend you're beautiful.

In this piece, Suermondt is able to portray the honesty behind dying: the desire to be remembered, and the desire to be what we once were. The way people are perceived is touched upon, as is romanticism. Death is not always as beautiful as it is in the movies, and this poem reaches to the humanity behind death. Still, there is a sweetness exuding from this speaker: they are willing to pretend; they are willing to waltz with death's illusions.

In other poems, Suermondt recreates the way in which icons are perceived: in the universes of his poems, icons are allowed to pass away; they are allowed to age. Suermondt is careful not to diminish these images, but to humanize them. As much as he inserts humor into serious situations, he also paints sympathetic, if sometimes fantastical, portraits of such cultural icons as Fidel Castro and James Bond. In the poem, Castro, Dying, Dreams of Baseball, Suermondt creates a small poem that discusses the political figure in a new way. The poem is self-aware and ironic with such lines as, "At the post game conference, Young Fidel says: / 'I'm blessed. I mean, I might have been a politician." However, the poem exists as an alternative to Castro's image. In fact, the poem envisions Castro as "he removes his Havana Club uniform." In this dream world, Castro is a pitcher and "he doesn't give a thought about the Russians / or the hustling of Communism with a human face-- / what did Lenin, Stalin and fat Krushchev know about / the beauty of a 95 mile-an-hour-plus fastball? / His golden arm sparkles in the bathroom mirror." Suermondt allows icons to grow old and even die. He finishes the poem James Bond is Dying by saying, "don't be sad, / nothing obliging lasts forever."

What's sly about Suermondt's poems is that the punchline is the veil before the personal. In his poem, Blue Skies, he writes about playing with toy soldiers in front of his mother. After she says that she wishes he "wouldn't play" with them so much, he sits them upright and declares that they are no longer dead. The poem ends with the lines, "'You're a good boy' she says / and walks out of my room / and the war, the war goes on." At first look, the poem might be too loud in its metaphors, too solid in its details. However, behind the sharp military overtones, we have a personal account of the war at home: the war between a mother and her son. If there's any flaw to the collection, it's that the poems are solid in their metaphors and jokes and their punchlines dare to be loud. These are ferocious poems with an onion's worth of meaning behind the flashing neon lights.

Suermondt is a fine poet: his lines are sharp and his humor is even sharper. Life, as this collection paints it, has never been as heartbreaking and has never been as beautifully ironic. At the end of the day, though "nothing lasts forever," the speakers in these poems understand, finally, how "to deem all of this almost, almost worthwhile."



Lisa Bower’s work has appeared or is forthcoming from such journals as The Southern Review, The Florida Review, The Mississippi Review, and Ellipsis.




Note: Reviews may not necessarily reflect the opinions of RATTLE's editors and staff.