Poet Jason Sommer finds solace in humor

 Jason Sommer 

By Ellen Harris, Special to the Jewish Light

If you enjoy stories, read Jason Sommer’s poems. Here’s how you do it: Recite his pieces out loud.  The words become visceral, and you understand and respond to them in your gut. April is National Poetry Month, so give it a go with Sommer’s latest book, “The Laughter of Adam and Eve” (Southern Illinois University Press). 

Many of his poems are narratives in the 19th century tradition but compressed and succinct. Take the title piece. Banished from Eden with “the sword burning behind them,” Adam begins doubling over in laughter, seeing a scrawny, dried up tree that reminds him of the magnificent Tree of Knowledge. 

“Tree? This thing?”he says to Eve.

Eve catches the hilarity, and they both are overtaken with laughter: 

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The curse notwithstanding,

this first fruit of exile he offers her,

plucked bodily but with some ease

from the barren land, is sustenance forever:

a knowledge of evil that is good.

“Laughter is sustenance,” Sommer, chairman of the Fontbonne University English department, says in his office, which features a skylight and walls adorned with photographs of T. S. Eliot as a child in St. Louis and Saul Bellow.  

“Humor is a form of solace. It answers the questions of what happens afterthe Fall, after the marriage ends, after the parents die.”

Sommer, who has been honored with a number of major national awards, is off-the-cuff funny in conversations over coffee and in talks to faculty and students. He enjoys gallows humor, as do many Jewish writers. Judaism is his biggest inspiration.  

“It’s my earliest and most important vocabulary,” Sommer said. “It’s the basis for how I understand the world. I’m interested in story and history as a means of making sense of life. The Bible and the Midrash are filled with stories to explain the unknowable. I write narrative poems to tell a story.”

And that story must be easy to understand.

“There’s a fair degree of elitism in contemporary poetry,” he said. “It can be obscure to the average reader.”

Sommer, 63, began writing poetry as a boy in the Bronx, N.Y., hearing the sounds around him – Irish street chants and children’s rhymes such as “Ring Around the Rosy.” His late mother read poetry to him. His father, a Holocaust survivor who speaks 10 languages, bestowed a love of words.  Both parents were schoolteachers.

Planning to teach, too, Sommer earned his undergraduate degree in literature from Brandeis University, his master’s in creative writing and English at Stanford University and his doctorate in modern English literature at St. Louis University.  

Sommer’s mother recently passed away and, as an only child, he’s been helping his widowed father, who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y.  He’s been juggling that responsibility plus baby duties with his wife, Alison Brock, managing editor at the Missouri Botanical Garden Press. They have an 18-month-old son, Gabriel. The Sommer tribe includes three adult children from a prior marriage — Matthias, Danielle and Benjamin – and a granddaughter, Iris, 6.  They all live in St. Louis.

Like many poets, Sommer was, as he says, “drawn to Ireland,” so much that he and his first family lived in Dublin for seven years while he taught at University College. In the famous Hodges-Figgis bookstore there, he saw the then-greatest-living poet, Seamus Heaney.  

“I approached him stuttering so badly, he must have thought I was disabled. He took me for a beer,  which didn’t help my articulation,” Sommer recalled of the late Nobel Prize winner.  

“He was the soul of graciousness. I’d take him poems from time to time, and he’d critique them. He was kind of a mentor.” 

Heaney published one of Sommer’s poems when he edited the literary magazine Ploughshares.  Sommer’s work also has been published in The New Republic.

One of my favorite poems is the title work of his third book, “Other People’s Troubles.” That narrative tells how, when given the choice of bearing one’s burdens or other people’s, we choose to take up anew our troubles. It’s haunted me since I first heard Sommer read it in 1997.

Some of Sommer’s poems are non-narrative, such as “Regret,” which is more like an epigram: 

Of all the places I have been,

I now remember most regret, 

the place I’ve never truly been,

to which I must some day return,

to see what I did not see then. 

Sommer’s earlier collections are “The Man Who Sleeps in My Office” and “Lifting the Stone.” His poems have won the prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, and fellowships at Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences.

Sommers also has published three novels as the co-translator of three Chinese best-sellers:  “Wang in Love & Bondage” and “The Bathing Women: A Novel.”