Aaron Simon’s masterful new collection Rain Check Poems never fails to beguile, to engage, to entice.1 The experience of reading Simon’s book is like listening to a favorite album. It starts with love at first listen: the needle hits the groove and I’m hooked instantly. With each subsequent play, the experience deepens as the music both opens out and takes on a layered density. The fact that Thurston Moore blurbed the book only adds to this analogy. Like early Sonic Youth records, say Sister, I get blissed out in the strata of feedback. I float amid palimpsests of dissonance.
The title is discordant, but in a good way. You take a rain check when you’d like to go do something but can’t quite get it together to make it happen. A rain check is a promise to try again, in some unstated future time, to be there. Contrary to what his title might suggest, Simon spends the entire book — poem after stunning poem — doing just that: showing up with his own honest truth: “there are many things I can never understand” (“Jerusalem”). The manner in which Simon engages us as companions in ignorance is one of the many things that make these poems sing with an authenticity that shades into something like purity. His lines are that good.
Take “Sky Story,” which opens with the admission “I won’t pretend to know the secret,” letting both the poet and reader off the hook. Four lines later the poet assures us “I have no ideas of my own,” which reads as a reminder of how many people we all are. As Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses: “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.” Simon gestures to this Joycean/Buddhist understanding of the self as a process or procession throughout the collection. And like both Joyce and Buddhism, he includes thoughts on the list of sensual perceptual modes. Thus, these poems are disjunctive and fragmentary in their construction. They move not at the speed of light, but at the speed of thought, always acknowledging that we have “More questions than answers” (“Coulisse”). For me, reading Simon’s work is a reminder that sometimes consciousness can have a mind of its own.
When taken together, “Some Histories” and “Distraction Pattern” frame a two-headed problem that many of the other poems in the collection offer at least tentative responses to. “Some Histories” is about an unreachable, edenic past, a time when “Present meant something,” a place where “Beauty never pulled away” and “Magicians and clowns weren’t mocked.” A personal and cultural nostalgia for a time and place that only finds purchase in our imagined memories. Back to “Sky Story:” “There’s a lake in my imagination / only distinguished by its pinkness / I mustn’t forget I didn’t exist once.”
On the other hand “Distraction Pattern” offers a uniformly dark view of our present moment: from “May I speak de haut en bas? / Our body of work fails the smell test” to the dryly comedic “something’s been chewing on my Gandhi sticker / rapturous little punctures / one can sense / the perpetrator’s delight.” The poem concludes with the cranky and quotidian “I’m not ready for my breakfast,” which is our bridge to the final devastating lines about our media, what we choose to display and reinforce about ourselves: “We need to read the newsreel / the people want their obloquy.”
As noted above, against both nostalgia and dark prognostications, the poet offers the relief of Anatta, the Buddhist doctrine of No Soul, as poetic praxis. From What the Buddha Taught by Wapola Rahula: “There is no unmoving mover behind the movement. It is only movement….there is no thinker behind the thought. Thought itself is the thinker.” Take “Memorial Day” for example. The poem begins with the idea of the sky being what it is, outside of our limiting thoughts and perceptions about/of it: “The sky opens without reading into it, / and mynahs sail through the copper light of coal smoke.” It ends with: “But I have no memories beyond waking up / nameless and compacted, / or dropping the line on morning reflections / which are just our brief personas.” Through this poetic praxis, we are our perceptions — there is no persona more basic or original, the one that all the others are based on. Of course, there will always be those who object to this kind of thinking: “They think the soul is permanent / they meaning the rubberneckers / geeks of hardened ironies” (“Salvation Armory”). This is not say that the poet is parsimonious: “It’s necessary for me / to dislike certain people / the ascetic especially” (“Opposite Signs”), and “My Tito’s Vodka is from Austin / Watson’s Tonic is from Xiamen” (“Sky Story”).
“Bitter Half” could be read as an Ars Poetica of Simon’s approach. I’ll quote it in full:
The last words begins
like a poorly-scored pill
I can’t speak for you
cherry picking is one method
a frame within a frame
where the past is heavy with hidden costs
and you can’t get out of the way
we don’t need another hero
to return us to point A
the end of our transparency
is the beginning of composition
The world and our perceptions of it and thoughts about it bombard us. How should we deal with the overload? “Cherry picking is one method / a frame within a frame.” Because we don’t need “another hero” who promises us explanation, meaning, the secret. Claiming our own frames of reference, however fleeting they may be, might end our “transparency,” but doing so is also “the beginning of composition.”
Later in the collection we read “Elevated Mood,” a poem that takes the mundane as a cause to celebrate. In the endless thought-perception-reflection feedback loop that is our consciousness, the everyday becomes luminous, as poetry becomes a method for “composing these reasons for elation / my scallions are coming up / it’s almost time for cold soups / reason enough to stick around for Easter.” The poem ends with a memory of buying a copy of the New York Times when there was a wind so strong that the speaker’s “jacket became a sail.” Like Odysseus, the poet is on a quest, but since there’s nowhere to go that could turn questions into answers, the poet is free to travel widely, bringing himself and his poetic sensibility with him.
What follows are poems that act as the climax of the collection, a series of “place” poems: “Mendocino,” “Zion,” “Bryce Canyon,” “Capitol Reef,” respectively. The lush “Mendocino” has some gorgeous lines, e.g. “riding shotgun through the headlands / hymns of staggered fences / licking wind bent trees / wild flowers line the road,” and ends with a statement of the wisdom of Anatta: “to realize you’re an ellipsis / in a long line of ellipses / from a very distant shore.” This realization brings no sense of sadness or loss with it. “Zion,” adds a note of humor. The poem opens with “The valley is full of vapor / interred between cliffs,” but then offers a comedic take on the title with a nod to Mormonism: “Welcome to Planet Kolob / where dying saplings smell sweet / and the air is cool like moccasins / filled with red mud.” “Bryce Canyon” shows us “Bruised plum skies” that “need further explanation / some music to counter / the silent treatment of the trees.” And when in “Capitol Reef” the poet asks us, “What’s your favorite Twilight Zone?” The correct answer is of course Rain Check Poems, by Aaron Simon.
1 Note of disclosure: I am the poetry editor at Across the Margin, and in that capacity published six of the poems featured in Rain Check Poems.
Richard Roundy is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher. He is the author of The Other Kind of Vertigo (Baretta Books, 2005) and his work has appeared in English Journal and numerous other literary periodicals, including: Shiny, Insurance, Sal Mimeo, Object, Open24hrs, Verse, The Washington Review, Mirage, Big Bridge, Situation, and the anthology Like Musical Instruments: 83 Contemporary Poets (edited by Larry Fagin with portrait photos by John Sarsgard). He is the poetry editor for the website Across the Margin.