Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

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Paul Zimmer’s early and midlife poems are often comical narratives recounting the mundane escapades of someone, as the poet explains in “Zimmer the Drugstore Cowboy” (1983), who was “stunned by a concrete tit at birth,/ Dull as a penny bouncing off a cinder block.” He is, in “The Sweet Night Bleeds for Zimmer” (1983), a “sorry man/ Remembering each cruelty under the stars;/ Someone wagging submission forever.” In this light, Zimmer is in the long tradition of the comic and foolish Everyman, an individual who represents the frail, even buffoonish, nature and aspirations of all humankind. The poet’s apparently severe judgments upon him must thus be leavened with a universal compassion.

The Zimmer of “The Eisenhower Years,” though the life he leads is purposeless, is a kind young man. While the old women of the poem live in a United States in which their only “agony” may reside in feet “twitching and shuffling in pain” for new shoes, still the speaker “talks to the feet” and “reassures” them. If he drinks cheap wine and too much beer, he also listens to good and sophisticated music, music that has its roots in a culture and world other than his own very limited one. The novel he reads, by choice, is serious fiction, literature that exposes him to deeper issues in life, however immune to that exposure he may be at the time. Even the strikingly askew pose he assumes in the end suggests his emotional and spiritual desolation, and desolation is a conscious state. There are signs of hope for the speaker, though he must heed the signs.

Frozen in the image against the lamppost, the pettiness of the image in Zimmer’s own mind haunts him in the final stanza: “the feet of old women” are all that move for him in the “void” of “complacent America.” Life must be more than this, for Zimmer and for America. He is ignorant and almost emotionless, and he is without real experience of life. What is crucial for him is that he “fears where he is going.” This fear, like his numb unhappiness, signals that he is conscious of his condition, however inchoate that consciousness may be. The speaker’s fate may not be identical to that of America, but in “The Eisenhower Years,” Paul Zimmer chooses to link the condition of his Everyman poetic persona with that of the country in which he lives. Voids are inevitably filled. The lesson of history is that the void some saw in the United States during the Eisenhower years was ultimately filled by a greater but tumultuous self-consciousness. In the poem “The Eisenhower Years,” what will fill the void in Zimmer is left uncertain.