Margaret Szumowki’s I Want This World
Tupelo Press, 78 pages, $13.95
A Review by Susan Kan


Margaret Szumowski’s debut collection, I Want This World, is a welcome departure from much contemporary poetry. The poems are exuberant and enthusiastic, knowledgeable and political. Szumowski’s gift is to see the beauty of the world through all its war-torn, mortal reality, to find the life affirming amid the suffering. She wants this world, not in a greedy way; rather her want is desirous and loving.

Szumowski has traveled far from her roots in Iowa. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Congo and Ethiopia, and a hostage in Uganda, knows the politics of the Rio Grande Valley, and delves back into family history that involved, among other things, forced labor camps in Siberia during World War II.

Szumowski’s poems are about abundance and plenty. Forests, hands full of berries, ripe vegetables, downpours of rain—these are the kinds of images that recur, even in the poems of the first section of the book, which are about her family history during the second world war. Szumowski is a poet who is drawn to situations where people, plants, animals embrace their lives, no matter the circumstances. In “Summer Downpour”:

Lilac boughs over their heads, ruins abloom,
church checked for mines, they married anyway!

Only a skilled observer can see ruins as blooming.

Szumowski has the extraordinary ability to capture the essence of many different experiences with a variety of texture and language. She is most interested in women whose lives have been circumscribed, but are also breaking out. In the second section, “The Women Who Dance Alone” is set in Chile during the regime of Pinochet, when los desaparecidos disappeared into prisons or torture chambers or died without their families knowing when or where. The women in the villages danced courageously before the soldiers, letting the soldiers see that they, the wives were keeping their men alive:

Dry earth of this village sifts through children’s fingers.
We are beautiful and dangerous
as wild birds brightening the desert.

The language in I Want This World is noun rich and narrative. Lyrical lists of food, vegetables mainly, spread across the pages, an expression of this poet’s open-armed attitude to both the physical and emotional world:

Like the tumbling from the valley
of avocadoes, cabbage, sugarcane, tomatoes,
onion, strawberries, corn and sorghum,

like the flowing of refugees over this border,
beauty erupts irrepressible as paradise.

(from “Promesa: The Shrine at San Juan, Texas”)

In the third of four sections, Szumowski pulls back to her own life and family. Contemporary issues and doubts are handled as are the struggles of daily life. Here the poet worries about her son and daughter growing up. Also in this section, the alter ego to the mother—in the wonderful form of Ruby, a wild, daring, funny, and sexy character—shows up in several poems. At first Ruby is a foil, an interruption almost, though a welcome one. Ruby is pulling at the poet to come out again into this world she says she wants. Ruby sees beauty not so much in the sorrow of the world, but in the mundane. For example, we meet a hairdresser whose job it is to cut a priest’s hair; we are born again at the Golden Nozzle car wash; and here is part of “Ruby in Eden”:

Ruby’d give up heaven
for an armful of poppies.
She never had so much fun
before God dropped her in his garden.
All the scales and red, forked tongues.
Ruby dances with the cobra, swims
with the sharp-toothed fish.

By the end of this section, the poet and Ruby have become one. In “Washing the Spinach,” here in its entirety, the two voices have clearly come together:

I want to wash you like spinach,
your rough gritty leaves,
I want to tear away each tender morsel.
I want to pick you over and find each delicious tidbit.
There’s a lot to go through.
It may take me all night to pluck you
from those coarse stems, wash you
of sandy grit that sticks to you
like no-good women.
I rinse you and prepare you for my banquet,
cook you in my steam until fragrant
and eat you up completely,
you pungent, iron-willed vegetable.

Szumowski’s expansiveness is not at all naïve. She is open to humor and beauty, but also to heartache and torment. She says we want it, whatever it costs / death or madness, we want this nighttime sky (“Starry Night”). She sees the darkness, the pain, the war, the untimely death, and embraces it all.

And she is blessed for her attitude and appreciative, as in the experience described in “Laguna Madre”:

A woman who sees more than one roseate spoonbill
has to lift her bony arms

flap over this earth
until she is breathless.

Szumowki, in collaboration with Tupelo Press, has put together an uplifting and skilled collection of poetry in I Want This World. The book itself is lovely to hold, a simple, apt sketch by Auguste Rodin on the cover. By the poet’s example, readers are encouraged to pay attention to the beauty of the world, and isn’t that the purpose of poetry? Szumowski’s ardor for her themes and language comes across powerfully, yet serenely, and is definitely contagious.