Circulation Flowers by Chuck Stebelton and Telling the Future Off by Stephanie Young
“The playgrounds and basements of Brooklyn and Berkeley teem with neo-avant-something poets who smash prose sense to bits while preserving syntax, and who claim that the resulting jumbles reveal a radical critique of life, the universe, or old tennis shoes.”
So begins Stephen Burt’s bait-and-switch style review of Christopher Nealon’s The Joyous Age released a bit over a year ago in The Believer. Burt proceeds to laud the volume in no uncertain terms, and rightly so. But being a poet formerly of the playgrounds and basements of Brooklyn (and Chicago, and more recently Philadelphia) whose aesthetics bear a perhaps distressing similarity to what Burt describes, I felt a little stung by the pejorative bait. It did, however, prod me to examine this mode of writing more thoroughly, as I tend to reflexively defend it.
Two recent books from Tougher Disguises Press helped me along in this reexamination, as they draw into stark relief both the risks and rewards of this poetics. It’s a risky mode: by fracturing language, denying formal structures, and squashing narrative, the possibilities of poetic product are markedly, and perhaps counterintuitively, reduced. The measures of success can only inhere in the linguistic virtuosity and the persona of the speaker, such as it is, of these kinds of poems.
Chuck Stebelton’s Circulation Flowers, while it should be admired for its aspirations, flops nonetheless. The titles of his poems refer to bands (“Analogue Set”), record labels (“Touch and Go”), and Chicago places (“Midway Park,” “The Urbis Orbises of the World”), but the poems remain stubbornly and inwardly inflected. The poetic persona, rather than serving to congeal Stebelton’s occasionally intriguing juxtapositions, instead is so watery as to slip away entirely, largely due to the other, failed juxtapositions. His language is not strong enough to sustain relentless fragmentation -- or as Burt might say the “jumble” -- and meaning and sense are elided by what becomes merely a verbal pastiche.
I write “what becomes,” and also do not quote from Stebelton here, because the mereness of the pastiche only emerges by reading the entire book. It would be a disservice to both his occasional successes and his more frequent failures to take them out of context -- and I suspect that Stebleton would argue, and his poetic choices imply, that context is vital within the bounds of each of his poems, even if in no other way.
I was glad to have read Stebelton’s book first, because Stephanie Young’s quite excellent Telling the Future Off seemed all the more so. Young’s poems are characterized by a confident mania that masks a fearsome awe of the business of living. In “Age of the Mercenary,” a particularly nice cycle, one section sets a simple and surprisingly elegant self-assertion (“I bloomed / and I bloomed and I bloomed”) against the plaintive question, “This much / and no more?” And a few lines later, we get the answer: “I AM HERE / embedded in the covers.”
“I AM HERE” -- with full caps in the flaming e-mail style -- pops up three times in the book. And its use is the answer to Young’s question, “what am I supposed to do with this fine sense of the horrific?” Despite the fact that “all the other nightmares were contained inside this one nightmare,” which is a dream of the pathologies of both war and daily life, “I AM HERE.” It’s not a political point at all, except insofar as one’s recognition that, despite -- and perhaps in spite of -- not just war, but family, work, everything, one is alive here, in the world, at this moment, is political. That much, and no more.
But lest this become a review of “Age of the Mercenary,” it should be mentioned that Young offers up the humor that frequently accompanies mania as well. For example, “I Use My Fantasies & I Solve My Problems: The Problem with Conversation, Sade & the Exit Poll,” a cycle that’s more or less an exegesis on desire, requires a fluidly defined “marzipan” to bring us through the argument. And I must say that I too “reject the Cartesian notion of a trouser/marzipan split.”
It’s a bit embarrassing, but my favorite line of the book may be one cited in a blurb on the back cover. In it, Young asks a question that reveals the risks of her poetics, but in a style that demonstrates the rewards: “what is the point of having fine sensibilities / unless they can be ruined by weather, or placed in the box for jewelry / and smashed?” What, indeed?
Circulation Flowers by Chuck Stebelton
Tougher Disguises Press
Telling the Future Off by Stephanie Young
Tougher Disguises Press