No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012
Etruscan Press, 2012
Perfect Binding, 125 pages
Reviewed by Kim Loomis-Bennett
Michael Blumenthal’s eighth poetry collection invites long-devoted readers as well as those unfamiliar with his work into the intimacy of his deepest concerns. If you’re unfamiliar with Blumenthal’s body of work think of him as a less urban, more European Philip Levine—less miserable, yet as droll as Philip Larkin.
Besides Blumenthal’s accomplishments as a poet, he is a Visiting Professor of Law at The West Virginia University College of Law, a psychotherapist for expatriates in Budapest, and a memoirist, essayist, and novelist. His novel Weinstock Among The Dying won Hadassah Magazine’s Harold U. Ribelow Prize for the best work of Jewish fiction.
No Hurry: Poem 2000-2012, arranged in four sections, is intensely observant of locations as divergent as Berlin and Texas. Blumenthal also focuses his poems on the stark reality of aging with its inherent strains of regret and resignation. Though these poems are sophisticated, they are delightfully accessible and relevant. The collection acts a mirror to our buffoonery and brilliance–paradoxical creatures that we are.
The first section opens with a visit to “Atelier Rheingold,” a sardonic analysis of the double-life where “. . . for a price, some sweet young girl/will seek to satisfy, sending you home/to your ordinary life once more. . .”
This unwavering look at fantasy-fulfillment for a fee speaks about culture at large and asks the question—as anything beyond price? Blumenthal writes from middle-age and knows what it is to be on the other side of our actions and their consequences.
“Gratitude” lets readers know that though Blumenthal acknowledges, even celebrates existence with nostalgia and an underlayment of melancholy, he is not sentimental. The puerile humor in lines such as:
It’s hard to imagine this banana,
having come all the way from Honduras
shaped like a crooked penis
in its yellow winter coat
is here in my hand now
where I am peeling back its foreskin
like a woman (well, you know
what I’m about to say . . .)
tell us that, yes, we should laud our “many blessings,” but remember to play. I won’t give away the final line. Blumenthal’s last lines are superb. They redirect the unfolding of meaning into an unexpected direction that invites rereading the poem to re-experience that turning.
The poems in section two include wide-ranging topics: Hugh Hefner, moles, politics, German nationalism, self-deprecating humor, existential meditations, and an elegy for Lucy Grealy, the poet who committed suicide in 2002. Her face was deformed by jaw cancer. In a poem with the same title as Grealy’s memoir, Blumenthal addresses “Autobiography of a Face,” to Grealy. Blumenthal expresses compassion for Lucy when he imagines her reaction to herself: “. . . why/the less than beautiful are forced to hide. . .” and in the line, “You saw your face in mirrors and you cried” echoes throughout a poem as a touchstone for grief.
As a counterpoint to sorrow, poems like “Desire,” capture moments of earthy pleasure:
Let’s just say I seem to be enjoying these three chicken drumsticks
far more than the young man doing sit-ups just across the lawn
Blumenthal witnesses a range of moods in No Hurry which gives the collection credibility.
“The Wounded”, the introductory poem of section three, will connect with many readers as it speaks to the instinct to pity ourselves and others. Blumenthal advises that:
It is good to pity them
but not too much, or for too long,
lest we make a habit of it
and encourage them to pity.
and in the fifth stanza Blumenthal knows that:
they will never be entirely healed,
that, in place of their wounds
there will be scars, phantom pains,
recurrent nightmares, phobias, fears . . .
and concludes with:
I myself have been among them.
Pity me. Then stop.
Section three includes poems that contemplate the varieties of love—young, parental, wavering—as well as aspects of kindness, a complex expression than might be considered meek. Blumenthal reminds us that compassion is a choice after invoking Henry James’ “four rules of life—/be kind be kind be kind be kind . . .” in the final poem of the section aptly titled, “Be Kind.” Blumenthal reminds us that “it may be/that kindness is our best audition/for a worthier world . . .” This poem is not as much a call to action as it is a call to give our miserable souls a chance to connect before it’s too late.
The final section of No Hurry mourns the inevitable ruin of the physical body, including the demise of the sex life. Blumenthal illustrates how to come to terms with mortality. In “Downhill” the rhythm of the poem is the sensation of decent—there’s no fighting gravity or the grave:
You know when the woman leaves
in the middle of the night
and the dog stays
you’ve reached the point
on the descending slope of the journey
where there’s no going back—
As a contrast to the aging poems, Blumenthal observes the next generation still encased in the belief that they’ll live forever in “For My Son, Reading Harry Potter”. He celebrates the young reader and the father’s wish “that life may let you turn and turn/these pages, in whose spell/time is frozen, as is pain and fright and loss . . .”
The collection concludes with a dash of tongue-in-cheek humor in the first of the final two poems, “Six Cheerful Couplets on Death”. The rhyming couplets have a Dorothy Parker feel to them—a mournful, yet playful view of death. And in the final poem, Blumenthal offers a measure of peace in the lines: “. . . My inner voice/says nothing about ambition, nothing/about love . . .” At the end we must slow down, lay down our battles, our earthly drives and enjoy the moment as a “. . . scent of honeysuckle/wafts between the trees . . .”
Take some time with Blumenthal’s collection—it’s like the luck of happening upon an impromptu conversation in which mid-age insight is freely shared with those that can relate. Or it is given, not as a warning but as a sentinel for the next generation.
Kim Loomis-Bennett is an MFA candidate in the Wilkes University creative writing program.