Book Review Archives

The Sweetest and the Meanest

By: Tom Kimmel
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
Point Clear Press, 2007
$15, Paperback

Performer and songwriter Tom Kimmel’s debut book of poems is uneven but nonetheless pleasing. Like a homecooked meal made with much care and some ability, it satisfies.

Kimmel sets out his bona fides in the author’s preface, referring to his reading of Sharon Olds, Wislawa Szymborska, William Stafford, and others. Having had a good bit of success in the world of music (Kimmel’s back-cover biography states that “his songs have been featured in film, in television and on albums by dozens of artists, including Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker, Randy Travis, and Linda Ronstadt, selling millions of copies and achieving gold and platinum sales in countries around the world”), Kimmel has assembled what he refers to as “the first sharing” of poems he has, apparently, been composing over a number of years.

How are these different from songs? (This is the age-old “Bob Dylan’s lyrics are really poems” problem.) Kimmel’s poetic inclinations run to the anecdotal, the mildly confessional, and the introspective. In fairly short lines of free verse, he tells stories of family, love (mostly of the gone-wrong variety), getting older, and life on the road. Kimmel is a good listener, and he picks up on the choice overheard line, or the lucky bit of colloquial wisdom from the woman working at Lowe’s: “Out in Lawn & Garden, she told me, nobody comes out / and bothers you and tells you what to do all the time, / plus everyone out there works as a team” (“Lawn & Garden”). In “The Pig,” Kimmel remembers his grandmother saying, “clear as the morning: / Now I mostly shop the Red & White / because they let you sign the ticket, / but I do like that young butcher at the Pig.” To my mind, the best of these poems are laced with humor—often self-directed, sometimes located in a tense or awkward moment. The weaker poems are too sincere for their own good: “I don’t want to be healed; / I want to be touched. / I don’t want to be comforted; / I want to be loved.” (”Cripple Me”), or written with a Dr. Seuss-like trimeter bounciness: “In the fullness of time I set off down that track / to find out for myself you can never go back.” (“More Like the Devil Than Dana Cooper”).

Bravely, Kimmel has included a poem titled “I Am Not a Poet.” I think this is going too far. Kimmel classes himself as an “Aspiring Poet, / which is a kind of purgatory.” I suspect he won’t be quitting his day job, anyway, but this is nonetheless a very readable book in the voice of a southern man who fesses up to being both “the sweetest and the meanest.”

Jennifer Horne is the poetry book review editor for First Draft Reviews Online.