The Importance of Being Zimmer
by Paul Zimmer
I began with shyness and uncertainty trying to be a poet in the early nineteen-fifties. Those were intimidating times for aspiring bards. Eliot, Auden, Frost, Bishop, Cummings, Jeffers, Moore, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Aiken, Rukeyser, Berryman, Van Doren, Roethke, Spender, Graves, MacLeish, Hayden, Plath, Hughes, Carruth, Lowell, Wright were still alive. Yeats had been dead for only a decade and a half; Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane and Wilfred Owen should still have been alive.
I had not been a successful young person, thus my first books were tentative, comprised mostly of poems about people I had made up, assigning them names like Lester, Eli, Mordecai, Wanda, Phineas, Gus, Rollo. When I offered a second book manuscript comprised mostly of these made-up persona poems to October House, the wise editor, David Way, commented, "These are very interesting, but as I read the manuscript I keep asking myself one question. Who are you--who is the poet?”
“Zimmer,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said--and so it went. Seven years later (1976) Merrill Leffler of Dryad Press published a small edition of a book called The Zimmer Poems, which went out of print in short order. Since then, I have put at least a few Zimmer poems in most of the books I published. They became a sort of creative tic, and some of my friends began to worry about my literary health. They teased me by trying to imagine titles for my next books: A Zimmer With a View, one of them suggested (Zimmer means “room” in German), The Enormous Zimmer, another proffered. Other Voices, Other Zimmers. A Zimmer Of One’s Own. One old pal even called one evening, after he’d bolstered himself with several scotches, and said quite seriously, “You must never say the word “Zimmer” in a poem again.”
Wow! Okay, okay, okay! I did not want to be a silly boy. So I stopped for a number of years, and even published a book of poems--a pretty good book--without a single Zimmer included. But eventually I asked myself again: Who are you?
I am Zimmer, and I could no longer resist allowing this ubiquitous phantom to at least occasionally sneak into my scene again. In an effort to control myself and not be cloying, I even wrote some parodies of Zimmer poems as I imagined other famous poets would have written them (“A Zimmershire Lad,” “Death of the Hired Zimmer,” “Leaves of Zimmer” and others).
Now, as I begin to survey my lifelong writings, I find that, amongst many others, I published more than 130 Zimmer poems over the years. Recently I laboriously gathered them all together and looked at them.
Here are less than half of these, carefully gleaned from the whole lot, including some new ones at the end. I’m too old to be shy and uncertain now. To hell with it! A pretty good book.
Quickly, I must admit that I have done just a bit of fiddling, trimming some poems slightly, performing major/minor surgery on others. By doing these revisions I do not undervalue my earlier efforts or the person I was then, but I respect these poems enough to make them as good as I can make them, to finish them as best I can--as I am (I hope) a wiser Zimmer than I was before. Finish is a good word and process--for building furniture or houses, painting pictures, pitching a baseball, shooting films, composing music, dancing a dance, living a life and making poems.
- Paul Zimmer, 2010
THE GREAT BIRD OF LOVE
I want to become a great night bird
Called The Zimmer, grow intricate gears
And tendons, brace my wings on updrafts,
Roll them down with a motion
That lifts me slowly into the stars
To fly above the troubles of the land.
When I soar the moon will shine past
My shoulder and slide through
Streams like a luminous fish.
I want my cry to be huge and melancholy,
The undefiled movement of my wings
To fold and unfold on rising gloom.
People will see my silhouette from
Their windows and be comforted,
Knowing that, though oppressed,
They are cherished and watched over,
Can turn to kiss their children,
Tuck them into their beds and say:
No harm tonight,
In starry skies
The Zimmer flies.
ZIMMER GUILTY OF THE BURNT GIRL
Once a week
The burnt girl came peddling to our house,
Touching her sweet rolls with raisin fingers,
Her raw face struggling like a bubble
Through lava to say what she had
To sell and why, "Please buy my sweets
To mend my face."
Always I hid behind the piano and heard
My unflinching mother quietly buy a few,
And imagined apricots shriveling in sun,
Spiders writhing and dripping over matches.
Always, when the burnt girl had gone,
I heard my mother drop her purchase
In the rubbish to be burned and
I came out to see the pink graftings,
The horrid, sugared layers of the rolls.
I do not want
The burnt girl to come again.
I am guilty for her and of her.
Always in fever I think of that face.
Sometimes in love I believe that I am
Fire consuming myself, and the burnt girl
Suffers from my love as she sells
Her rolls to mend her face.
ZIMMER ENVYING ELEPHANTS
I have a wide, friendly face
Like theirs, yet I can’t hang
My nose like a fractured arm
Nor flap my dishpan ears.
I can’t curl my canine teeth,
Swing my tail like a filthy tassel,
Nor make thunder without lightning.
But I’d like to thud amply around
For a hundred years or more,
Stuffing an occasional tree top
Into my mouth, screwing hugely for
Hours at a time, gaining weight,
And slowly growing a few hairs.
Once in a while I’d charge a power pole
Or smash a wall down just to keep
Everybody loose and at a distance.