Milwaukee poet Mark Zimmermann’s first full-length poetry collection, Impersonations, dazzles with a gallery of pithy portraits written in a novel form. Take, for instance, “Osama bin Laden.”
Islam is all.
Man is made
And as man
is old as sand, so
Islam is oasis.
Islam, one is
dead, one loses
all. Loses all
and is damned.
Zimmermann’s poems are lipograms, a form where one or more letters of the alphabet are deliberately excluded from a work. Perhaps the most famous literary lipogram is A Void, a 1969 French novel by Georges Perec in which the letter “e” is never used.
Zimmermann takes the lipogram one step further by composing first-person narratives using only the letters contained in a literary or historical character’s name. Additionally, three of the poems also double as sonnets (all this, while limited to half the alphabet!).
“The form afforded the kind of creative freedom that can come from working with a constraint that guides one into places they’d not otherwise go,” explains Zimmermann, who teaches humanities and writing courses at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
The 62 character studies found in Impersonations include 1960s LSD guru Timothy Leary, Walt Disney, Sigmund Freud, an Elvis impersonator, John Wayne, Emily Dickinson, Moby Dick, Hannibal Lecter, and Yeti (I confess to Googling some of the book’s historical subjects).
Composing the bin Laden poem only took Zimmermann a few hours over the course of an afternoon. “I probably spent more time worrying that a careless reader would take it as a put-down of Islam at large than I did actually writing the poem,” he says.
Working with a limited vocabulary isn’t new to Zimmermann. Between 1990 and 2004 he lived in Japan, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland, working as a university instructor and freelance journalist and editor. As a second and third language user during those years abroad, Zimmerman experienced linguistic limitations similar to the constraints found in a lipogram, which contributed to his attraction to the form.
The math and magic in these poems reminds me of how numerology (the belief and practice surrounding the spiritual significance of numbers) breaks down the letters in a person’s name to just a single number, which represents a certain personality type.
Having written lipograms, I can testify how (after the grunt work of building a word list), phrases assemble themselves independent of author intent, like crystals forming in a supersaturated solution. Besides a certain inevitability of composition, the form’s narrow parameters render a small (400 or so) vocabulary of similar-sounding words. This process of sonic distillation results in a poem with extraordinarily rich sounds.
“While [my poem] ‘Moby Dick’ took fifteen minutes,” Zimmermann explains, “it wasn’t uncommon to spend 25 or 30 hours on a poem.”
These poems are classic portraits—shorthand guides to the souls of their subjects. For “Donald Trump Sr.” Zimmerman recalls how “the terms of the constraint and the emptiness of the man combined to make composition happen quickly,” adding that he felt as if he “found something that was there all along, as opposed to starting from scratch”:
A small man’s monotonous lot
amounts to a rut on a dull map.
A Trump man’s dollar amount
maps a natural surplus.
A small man prompts no plan
to add onto unsold land.
A Trump man puts
a dollar amount on all land,
touts an all-out proposal:
Ad Plan Dollar Plan