The World Exactly
(Cuneiform Press, 2020)
The World Exactly by Sunnylyn Thibodeaux is one of the finest collections of poetry by a San Francisco poet published in years. Here is the mysterious concision of daily life in a poetry that is decidedly philosophical, yet devoid of the bamboozling rhetoric. The poet focuses, each poem a distilled individual world that unfolds one after the other: homilies of light and shadow. Thibodeaux embraces things as stark reminders of existence. Her mind feels eminently practical as she witnesses, while her ear is adept: “Lorca’s in the tub singing / about the rescue of America / in some gospel sounding croak”. On it goes. Eyes, ears, sense of smell, fealty to poetic tradition. “I’d give a left / just to be Lamantia hiding from you / on the other side of the street”. The poems in The World Exactly are refreshingly intelligent without fanfare. There is order and brevity as the pages unfold. Cuneiform Press has published many modern masters from John Godfrey to Jim Dine, but here is a mid-career poet getting the job done in due speed and with no bumps.
As details unfold, many in her apartment in an old San Francisco neighborhood, a poetic diary unfolds also, not intentionally, but just by the poet’s elegantly restless mindset:
I’ve got your hand
here. His too. Sun
behind marine’s cloak
Steam of coffee, cinnamon tint
This deft observing mind offers one set of impressions after another … poetry blooming like a rose bush. The world is consumed, and the words stand as sentinels. We are informed, meeting a parakeet that “sings and chuckles from his cage / which needs a good cleaning.” And the following line: “MRI results / were emailed before bed on a day the doctor / is not in.”
Thibodeaux is originally from New Orleans but has lived in San Francisco since coming to study writing at New College of California. These poems reflect the tone and the tenor of the city from the perspective of a working mom married to poet Micah Ballard. She has published several other books and built a considerable body of work. She revels in her neighborhood and documents the struggle of daily life in the jewel box of San Francisco.
in the crowded laundromat
and a desperation
illuminated by surging
fluorescent lights. Pressing
into the wall I bury
my nose in Lansing’s ode
Redemption comes in knowing. It is, in essence, a language of the streets. The poet may be so turned on by the shadings of what prevails that she tells us:
My daughter wants another pet
I say, ‘give it time’
meaning, give me time
and re-water the shriveling
flower bed checking
for aphids and hungry caterpillars
There is a sense of comfort, even when the poems go toward the vicissitudes surrounding us. The poet remains in command of clear and unencumbered truth. Her skill as a poet gets her and the reader through whatever comes: “There’s a history that is known / and neglected for torment / that can’t be let go.” This is the poet as philosopher speaking. She brings it home: “There are song birds / that throw their voices and clouds / that send dragons down.” It is precisely the sense of life as an ongoing history that astonishes this poet’s deeper impulses. Is it enough that the joys and foibles of what is near-at-hand
are clearly visible? Like Frank O’Hara, she is close to the visceral needs of her ongoing poetics. A careless observer might miss so much. The poet brings consciousness into focus with a steady hand as if to say “let the camera roll,” yielding a surreal cinéma vérité where the politics of perception are not so much inherent, but inevitable.
She is a careful observer and a faithful one, sure to link one moment to the next with keen words trimmed to their essence. “The chill is damp between walls / silence, mojo rising.” The poet is sure-footed. She has tamed the wild rapids in this collection, but for those who know her work it does not come as a surprise. The care has always been present. Thibodeaux is often unrestrained in her consideration of human frailty:
It is the lies we tell our children
that will be day sing us low
rocks of purest red
This is a tribal chant from way back that echoes in these times when society has learned how to bend the truth and speak a lie as if it were the truth. But this goes beyond preachiness. It is a ruthless scrutiny of our time on earth, so reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Within that context, the poet shares a deep morality of mindfulness:
What would it look like
if we left this place. If I stayed high all the time
How would I change my perspective if the doctor
called with more bad news again.
It is the news, and we listen. In this is a poet of exactitude who loves to measure each moment against an often banal world steeped in ignorance, whether natural or artificially imposed. The care with which Thibodeaux handles the art of poetry is manifest quite dramatically in a longer poem, “Fire Lake Haven,” the dedication of which reads “with Kenneth Rexroth.” In this poem everything seems to happen. It is easy to imagine asking the poet what she is writing about, and she might say, “I am writing about everything.” Sure, and that’s entirely understandable. Nothing is permitted to escape the poet’s scrutiny once the vision is set in place. The land is burning. There’s fire and smoke everywhere and she informs her reader that the birds know this before we do. Here she writes of fungus and microbes and the “Cougar watch his flight.” The poet has discovered that her neighborhood is in every place and at all times. She talks of shifts and climate and the first hunters coming from Botswana. As a poet historian myself I was taken with the mention of an older poet at the beginning of her poem at the start of this cacophony of smoke and flame “across from where Rexroth / held court” and “Above a record store / that never has hours of operation.” Thibodeaux’s is a voice to hear, one that is needed.
This poet has fortitude and moral stamina. Her sympathies live with our ability to probe, to discover, and to test our resolve. “Every day we are faced with beauty and corruption.” There she stands, poised, it would seem, between innocence and guilt. What language provides, especially when laid down by a skilled poet, is exactitude, or at least a sense that we are getting there.