Although Paul Zimmer’s poetry frequently features a character named Zimmer (particularly in the later books of verse), to state that Zimmer writes solely autobiographical poems is both misleading and reductive. The poet’s works are not simply internal monologues or records of anecdotal experience. Rather, Zimmer depicts in his poems a caricature of himself not only in the persona of “Zimmer,” but also through those of Imbellis, Barney, and even Wanda. Zimmer’s poems examine the poetic self embodied in its varying characters and spoken in its differing voices. The traditions that shape English-language poetry in general and American verse in particular have weighed heavy on the mind of Zimmer because of his dual careers as poet and publisher. Zimmer’s poems, particularly in the context of their literary inheritance from other such American poets as Walt Whitman, both embrace tradition and question its strictures. The self developed in Zimmer’s poems, like Whitman, sometimes finds value in American life and experience, but more often speaks doubtfully or angrily about his encounters with American peculiarities.
A Seed on the Wind
In many interviews, Zimmer identified his first book of poetry as The Ribs of Death. That volume, however, is the first book of his poetry to be published by a major press. His actual first book of verse, privately printed, was A Seed on the Wind. This slim volume, a selection of poems concerning nature, demonstrates the genesis of Zimmer’s themes. Nineteen poems laud the beauty and simplicity of the natural world in comparison to the dissolution and complexity of the human world. “A Hunting Song” demonstrates this contrast in fifteen terse, unrhymed lines. The human world, as represented by a foxhunting party, is frantic and murderous, breaking the quiet of the deep wood with the loud barking of its hunting dogs. The natural world, as represented by the foxglove, although to human perceptions a more delicate being than the fox and hunting party, is shown to be more permanent and ever-living:
Bruised by insect wings andCrushed perfumeless byStumbling feet, they willYet survive alone, defyingThe probings of our greenest thumbs.
Nature, as opposed to humanity, is eternal—it preceded and will follow humankind’s encroachment, just as the foxglove remains long after the hunting party, having collected its bloody prize, has left the wood.
Earthbound Zimmer, a book-length poem, consists of eleven separate movements, each of which describes a memory and its philosophical consequences. The verses, unrhymed quatrains, expand on and delineate more carefully the preceding prose passages. So the rhythm of the book alternates between expansion and contraction as it moves from prose to verse. The language of verse is such that it explores symbols and archetypes, while the book as a whole develops into a meditation on the greater truths of life.
Even the theme inherent in the volume as a whole is cyclic in its rhythms. As writer Rod Jellerma commented, the poems pursue love through earth, air, fire, and water and also through the four seasons. Initial failure leads inevitably to love, to the birth of two children, and then to a final dissolution of all things in an almost medieval description of the cycle of life. For example, in “Mrs. Scheffley,” Zimmer compares images of love and fire in verse, triggered by his memory, in prose, of an old lady in his neighborhood who burned to death in her own backyard trash fire:
Fire was my beginning, begetter of the wound I was born in, my parentsbroken and smoking, hot darkness, enemies, the abrasive tongue of the bear.
Elsewhere, Zimmer describes nature arising to the warmth of spring out of the long, cold sleep of winter. These images of spring have been triggered by his memory of losing a fistfight started by his protest...
(The entire section is 1749 words.)