Impersonations by Mark Zimmermann. Pebblebrook Press, 2015.
Reviewed by Frederick Kreutz
The title of Mark Zimmerman’s 2015 collection of poems Impersonations hints the intention of using his voice to imitate others throughout the text, especially after reading the names of sixty-two famous or infamous characters from history and literature listed in the Table of Contents. Those sixty-two monologues form the foundation of a far-ranging collection of speakers built on irony, braggadocio, sarcasm, and humor, each disclosing an aspect of their personality, motivation, and reputation that readers will recognize.
At the end of “A Note on Form,” one discovers that all the poems within the volume are lipograms; the entire text of the poem is restricted to the use of only the letters in the title, in this case the names of the characters being impersonated. Writing a memorable poem using the entire language at one’s disposal has enough challenges, so why would you artificially limit yourself to only a fraction of vocabulary to make art? Doesn’t it turn composing into something like wrestling a crossword puzzle? Yet, forms like sonnets, sestinas, haiku (exhibited in the poem “Se Shonagon”) have artificial constraints that readers admire and laud. Anyone who attempts writing in this demanding and constrictive form forces himself into a place where creativity with vocabulary, sounds, alliteration, assonance and consonance require advanced skill.
One might miss the concluding “Note on Form,” but after reading through several poems, the reader may notice the interplay between the title of the poem and vocabulary. After “Moby Dick”, “Ed Gein”, and “Heinrich Himmler” the repetition of letters and limited use of vocabulary makes the reader feel boxed in. Perhaps the sheer number of lipograms in one volume over-emphasizes the style of the poems, drawing attention away from their actual content.
Most all the poems and impersonations are in first person, as one can see when Lady Diana confesses, “I was warned…/I learned…” or Jay Silverheels (Tonto) reminds us, “It’s television/not history. /I’ll say that.” One notices Falstaff schooling Hal, “So/all hail Honor as I honor a fair lass’s loins…” Readers can find humor in these lines given by Anna Whistler when she bemoans “Sit still, Sit still mother! Oh/how his line is tiresome” and Thomas Bowler (censor of Shakespeare) boasts, “We assessed, we rewrote: bastard/shall read as lad…/All to theater’s better health.”
More often, a reader will find irony in a character’s boasts: Walt Disney observes, “…I sell/it as a daily aside. All is swell/at Disneyland.” and Phineas T. Barnum chants, “Here it is! —The Truth in entrepreneur miniature. /…/At a mere ten pennies per, step up!”
The more one reads Impersonations, the more they are drawn into the personas of the characters, delighted in the variety of personages Zimmerman draws from, challenged by his depth of knowledge, and made more appreciative of the clever and interesting texture and sound that lipograms add to the body of poetry.