Sam Schmidt Suburban Myths, Lulu, 2012, ISBN 13: 978-1105568572, 80 pages, $18
Love, marriage, and family are central to section I of Suburban Myths, Sam Schmidt’s wise and wry collection of poems. Fittingly an origin story, neither fate nor myth, opens the book. In “How They Meet” we are presented with “The old story of true love/ found.” He remembers it one way; she tells it another, and in the end, he nods in complete agreement with her version. “The Coelacanth Situation” again finds our protagonists at odds within that same story—old as extinction—making its way to true love. Here he tells the story, which begins as a tragedy in which he, a fossilized fish, is “captured on the page,” flat as a flitter, drowning in a passion of desire to kiss her face and “endearing faith in science.” He rues his lot in life. His extinction destroys him. He cannot mate. The “breath of life” eludes him. Here she stops his sorrowful tale of woe to remind him that “breath” isn’t a reality for the gilled. But this time he does not agree, firmly correcting “I/erupted from the silence/of myth. I opened my mouth, and even/though it’s not anatomically possible,/I breathed, my dear, I breathed.”
In “Sweet Bitter” you can feel the first stanza meandering into itself where it finds it’s a poem: “When I came home/from work, the previous/night was still here”—a paean to one evening of sensuous desire fusing into another. A bond forms between “Sweet Bitter” and the lovely “Pregnant Wife” that follows and sets the stage for the concluding seven poems of the section, where the two have now—with son and daughter—become four. Three of those poems spin magic with their father and daughter dialogues (“Conditions for Life,” “Hee, Ho, Ha,” and the incredibly smart “The Guess” where the scene is set when “Both think/they know best.”)
Schmidt makes his poetry work hard, every line properly carrying its weight, showing its attitude: “Daddy, my daughter cries. Daddy,/come here, I need you! She wants to show me/her magic: a tap of the wand and the ball/ is there in its goblet. Another tap,/ the ball is gone. Lovely, I say, already/hurrying back to the kitchen: An egg/is burning. I flip it, butter toast.” So successful is this first section of poems that I have read them many times, never tiring of the surprises they call forth regarding place, family, love, and accouterments.
A different surprise awaits in section II. At first, it’s jarring. Composed of almost as many poems as sections I and III combined, this section quite differs from the ones that bookend it, devoted as it is to G.I. Joe, the fictional partner (as Ken’s successor) of Barbie.
In Schmidt’s hands, G.I. Joe wears the crown of being the first action figure America produced with ease and aplomb. And G.I. Joe’s hands, well, “…He had/pistols that snapped/into his hand like/they were custom-made/for his paralyzed fingers.”
Schmidt doesn’t just get inside G.I. Joe’s head (with its painted-on hair secured by malleable plastic helmets), he inhabits him. No toy has ever been more completely understood by the child it belonged to. There is the moment, for instance, in which the “obedient soldier” wonders why he and his comrades, being gracious, allowed themselves to be garbed in bologna: “…(How/could we have known that by/accepting these gifts, these/garments made of meat,/from the indigenous/population, we would/immediately be carried off/in the jaws of giant dogs?)”
Section III contains a tracery of themes from Section I, where the poems felt very present. III’s truths are arrived at differently, often rooted in memory that is prompted by objects. Van Morrison’s studio album Tupelo Honey. Stiff, loitering Egyptian statues. A scorched wok from a torched marriage. The poet creates an atmosphere of apples and pears (“The apple is action,/the pear contemplation). A bedside clock has him telling times spent with his father: “I have him to thank/for silent eggs on toast, the mute/roast beef, and bread. The man/provided for us all but never/spoke, never, at least to me./We moved apart with no apparent/reference to each other, but/I must believe we were/propelled by the same springs.” Knives are an uneasily, unsteadying recurring object. And then there are the books, which animate “The Master Interpreter,” “Meeting de Man,” and “Night Courses.” These three poems are dizzying in their capacities. Their real worlds cohabit with the fantastical. The imagined, the thought, and the felt shimmer in them. They would not withstand synopses. They must be, they deserve to be read. Would that Schmidt would write more in their vein: poems perhaps, but as well short stories, a novel?
The only pause I have with the book is its title. Sam is a storyteller par excellence. But his narratives don’t render the mythological. Rather they illuminate the realities of life, suburban and not, in bright bursts of light that could make the scales drop off the eyes of even the most jaded readers.
In this limited review, there is absolutely no way to prepare you for all that Schmidt’s poems have to offer: their acrobatic agility and breathtaking breadth, their wit, and their understanding that comes with a wink and a nod. They are inveterately inventive. They are rich in their connections—to each other and beyond.
Nothing should stop you from reading them.
© Sam Schmidt and Rosemary Klein
Sam Schmidt was founder and editor of WordHouse, Baltimore’s newsletter for writers, published from 1993 to 2004. His publications have appeared in Black Moon, Dancing Shadow Review, Gargoyle, Loch Raven Review, Maryland Poetry Review, Potomac, and Potomac Review, among other journals. His work has been anthologized in Weavings 2000, Maryland’s millennium anthology edited by Michael Glaser. Schmidt earned an MA from the Johns Hopkins University and coedited the anthology Poetry Baltimore: Poems about a City.
Rosemary Klein was a Maryland Poetry Review founder and editor throughout its 15-year existence. She founded Three Conditions Press, has published regionally, nationally, and internationally, was a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellow, a Maryland State Arts Council poet-in-residence, and recipient of a Poetry for the People Baltimore Legacy Award. A medical editor/writer, her latest publication is “Surgical Training in Low-Resource Settings” (Global Surgery, co-authored). Her current academic editing project represents Ethiopian fine art.