by e.e. Cummings
Pub. Date: February 2010
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Paperback: 80 pages
Reviewed By Will Grofic
Of course inside this book are all the hallmarks of e.e. Cummings poems: compound nonce words, cutting and enjambing words by syllables, comedy, and repetition. But the tension in his poems comes from the realization he’s helpless or the admission that he wants to be so. One of his most famous poems “16” is a he said/she said poem about an affair. The man starts out with the power, while the woman asks “is it love said she)/ if you’re willing said he/ (but you’re killing said she.” By and by, they start with the whoopee, and the last stanza illustrates the release (and catch) of power:
(come? Said he
ummm said she)
you’re divine! said he
(you are Mine said she)
Even when Cummings incorporates awe (“the sudden flower of complete amazement”) or primal violence (“my loveFist in her knuckling/ thighs”), the lines that sparkle are those that tense up at the thought of the sex being over, the relationship finishing, and eventually life ending. In “xxx.” the speaker asks his lover to ponder the decrepit statues and aqueducts of past civilizations, and his logic is that if these things are so ephemeral “let us make haste” with “constructive/Horizontal/ business” and to “consider well this ruined aqueduct/ lady,/ which used to lead something into somewhere).” Of course countless poets have made the same claim to their lovers, but his word choice and images of aqueducts and statues are fresh and compelling.
And then you have to think to yourself, he wrote these in the 1920s? When Harry Douglas and someone named Mary Pickford were the big silent movie stars? Contemporary poets still use poetic moves that he championed like the compound nonce words and humorous use of ecstatic “O”. Although his wordplay for that day and age holds up for the most part, Cummings does sometime combine words that aren’t necessary to the image or rhythm of the poem (“greenslim” and “smelloftheworld”), making the poem all that much clunkier, but then he follows those words up with highly innovative concoctions like “mancurious” and “pseudomind” and “gropeofstrength” that all but make sense to be put in next year’s Oxford English.
Overall though, Cummings’ images seemed less modern and contemporary than the famous poems recast him. The subjects of his usual erotic images were often staid nature references, not what we remember from his great poem included in this collection about driving a car “xix.”:
brakes Bothatonce and
brought allofher tremB
The other outdated factor of reading Cummings today was his staggering amount of adverbs that garble and jumble without a function or reason. With that said, it’s remarkable any of these poems are fresh almost a century later.
Back in 1920, these were considered controversial poems, and today they’d fit in with other contemporary erotic poems. In one of Cummings’ weirdest metaphors, he biological inverses the sexual insertion:
there is between my big legs a crisp city…
all the house terribly tighten
upon your coming; and they are glad
as you fill the streets of my city with children.
Cummings has become the waiting taker, while the woman fills him. It’s odd and off-putting, power is reversed, and Cummings asks for her to “murder (his) breasts, still and always// I will hug you solemnly into me.” Even when Cummings wants to be the victim, his pleasure comes from a violent relinquishing of power and the peace that comes afterward.
Will Grofic is Managing Editor of Potomac Review and a recent graduate from the Bennington Writing Seminars where he received an MFA in Writing. His poems appear or are forthcoming in No Tell Motel, Gargoyle, The Coachella Review, and Anti-. He also teaches at Montgomery College.