The Operating System

6th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 6 :: Steffi Drewes on Laura Sims

[box][blockquote]HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!
For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.
I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.
Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.
This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/blockquote][/box]
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Steffi Drewes on Laura Sims

 
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There are many reasons I become attached to books of poetry—comforting or cracked-open lyrics, stories part-strange part-familiar, an alluring forest of language or logic—and among them, mystery. A decade after discovering the work of Laura Sims, I am still drawn to her poems for the enigmatic space they occupy. Depending on the day or the lighting, her careful compositions take on different shapes, refracting and solidifying, before winking away again.
Looking back, I think I stumbled upon her first collection, Practice, Restraint (2005), around the time of its publication. My father had just died, and the words coming from my own mouth felt anything but useful. Reading Sims, I remember being in awe of her spacious lines and the emotional realms she conjured in the shortest of poems:
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BANK TWENTY-TWO
The infinite
Network of rooms
*
When
Nobody wants you enough
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At a time when the language of my daily life felt so elusive, it was a relief to float in and out of Sims’ verse, to be held by her careful words and find room for silence. With each page, it became clearer how these silences served to strengthen and define her poems on girlhood, family, trauma, friendship, motherhood, love, death, work, war, and democracy.
I dove into the collection and gradually circled back to the longest of five sections, Bank Book, which spans the middle, forming a backbone of sorts. Each page in this numbered series resembled a financial counterpart in structure only—compact entries, adding and subtracting details. These measured lines resisted resolution, so the poems felt more like prismatic recordings from a memory reserve. In BANK NINE, Sims writes:
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I’d tell her
The blink of an eye
The long stretch, with poppies
The lie “without you”
I’d tell her
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I found the quiet insistence of Sims’ poems reassuring, and the more I read, the more I appreciated not being told what was happening as it happened. That mix of precision with abstraction is exactly how memory works.
At times, the enjambed lines resembled keen cinematic jump cuts, allowing images to accrue on top of one another: “The pills have grown / Trees” or “A basement / a valley—” or “The desert heft / Of the conference room.” I found reading akin to gazing out a train window, with distant scenery punctuated by interruptions in the foreground.
And while the brevity of lines made it tempting to move quickly, I practiced patience with Sims. Her visually sparse forms revealed such complexity, an expansion and compression of loss and longing, as in BANK NINETEEN: “My water weight / Shifts / . . .  /  A fully sown field, a bun in / Nothing / Conceived of / (Land)”. The transformation of the female body, positioned as landscape, an incomplete turn of phrase. I followed along, gleaning more from what’s left unsaid.
Even the occasional declarations (“This is life on a median island, I guess” or “Your future starts here”) remained unresolved. But the recurring gestures of sorrow and stoicism, tenderness and tragedy shone through, here in BANK EIGHTEEN as elsewhere:
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Dear
It left its
Permanent handprint
On you
Which is what the world
Eating magazines
Grins
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With cryptic address and points of reentry, Sims offers yet another invitation to slip inside the narrative and fill out this history. The work asks the reader, and you, where do you fit in?
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When I encounter Laura Sims’ work a second time, it is four or five years later. The book is Stranger (2009), a response to her mother’s illness and early death. In this album of poems, the figures and family narratives surface and disappear at varying speeds—like our memories of loved ones do, “In pictures come softly, blurry and sweet / at the edges. She gets so close to the lens that her face / dissolves.”
In writing, Sims also gets so close to her subjects that background noises and details occasionally fall away. This is how she captures the flicker of memory and ephemera, of attachment and loss:
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It stuns me
It stuns me to be alive
It stuns me to be alive in the waffle house
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In that excerpt (On a manicured lawn of such green, the end), I experience the weight of each word. It’s a feeling I’ve come to associate with Sims’ work. Just as I know that with every snapshot she offers, there will be an array of stories happening outside the frame, as in the unseen panorama of The way she loves her:
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“All this,” she says, spreading her arms to the ocean.
“All this,” her friend echoes, leaning over the rail.
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As readers, we often go in search of echoes, looking for a glimpse of ourselves in another’s work—even though in grief, the mind does not always know itself. How can you translate the newness and mystery and solitude that surrounds grieving?
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I looked for myself
In myself
And the woods were vocal
Oh my
Divided mind
Made
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In this poem, She felt, there’s a wink that calls to mind Dickinson’s agility. An active psyche that turns inward and outward, commanding a closer look. When I return to Laura Sims’ cool, crystalline arrangements, it’s a new experience each time, a balance of rifts and resonance—that will always be part of the allure.
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[textwrap_image align=”left”]http://www.theoperatingsystem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Steffi-Drewes-e1491003694902.jpg[/textwrap_image] Steffi Drewes is the author of Tell Me Every Anchor Every Arrow (Kelsey Street Press) and the poetry chapbooks Magnetic Forest, Cartography Askew, and History of Drawing Circles. Her poems have appeared in various journals and in the anthology It’s Night in San Francisco But It’s Sunny in Oakland (Timeless, Infinite Light). She works as a freelance writer and editor in the Bay Area.
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