December 2011

Josh Cook


Trees of the Twentieth Century by Stephen Sturgeon

This is what poetry is supposed to feel like; that is my strongest impression of Trees of the Twentieth Century. Poetry should be written toward the "unlanguageable," about the invisible, seeking the impossible through ideas too abstract, complex, and paradoxical to be contained in the structures of prose. If poetry is candid, it is candid about the concealed. If poetry is obvious, it is obvious about the contradictions of life. If poetry is direct, it is direct about the confusions of consciousness. Works like this should be the baseline of American poetry, the starting point on the path to whatever is next. 

The collection opens with "The Confabulators," an examination of history and meaning told with a writhing chronology. It's brave to open with a poem many readers would find obtuse, but "The Confabulators" is an honest introduction to the tone and content of the collection. Along with the time-traveling diction and provocative images, Sturgeon articulates some of the problems of making and using history: "I trust that you have written me in. Your / made history rides a problematic / matrimony between what in the world / is real and honor to traditional / convenience. You honor all that you want, / forging and forgetting slick obits / that bind our vows in transparent movement."           

"Satan in Heaven" takes the obvious tension of its title in surprising directions, opening with "In the beginning I was happier," and closing with "A shallow quarry grappled with its sands... // I tore bushes entire from the ground / and tirelessly they fed within my hand." "The Sailor's Head" is a contortion of sea shanty, folk tale, and ghost story. "I Forget What You Say" has an oscillating density, while exploring the ideas of home and death. Like many of the poems in the collection, I liked "Epistola Cantabrigiensis" more on the second read. 

Not every poem caught me, but I still saw substance and value in poems like "Love's Black Way," "Originalia," "The Fountain," and "La Ballade du Phasme." Even in the weaker poems, there are no lazy lines, easy images, or passive reliance on the nature of verse to imbue words with meaning. 

In the same way that "The Confabulators" works as an introduction to the collection, "Parerga" acts as a kind of conclusion. The term "parerga" originally referred to the incidental events that took place during the labors of Hercules, such as freeing Prometheus. The term has collected a host of complex meanings, connotations, and implications around the idea of notes and addenda. "Parerga" is a complex and obtuse work, opening with an image of the incommunicable: "Cannot translate angelic malfeasance / into the precursor to a prayer / or find words in the God-damned fields and trees." Sturgeon is writing toward "what cannot be found or worked for," and that "which cannot be related," searching through "perfect / anagrams of themselves." The speaker "watched the earth's scope broaden / until those peasants' screams fell short of me," and the poem concludes with a moment of transcendental defeat: "I / wept at the grace of this action, and felt / the magnanimity of centered words. / I did not see it belonged to someone else." Underneath it all is a defense of labor, whether directed at the god-given tasks of the hero or the incidentals that clutter life. 

Poetry is ambitious. Though not all great poets are overt about their ambition, the greatest poems have always been written from the desire to do something that has never been done before. Some readers want their poets to aim for smaller targets, and there is plenty of lyrical beauty in this collection for those readers, but I look for something more. To me, that extravagant ambition is the core of what is dazzling, beautiful, and important poetry. 

In this collection, readers will see something of Jesse Ball, Karyna McGlynn, Tony Hoagland, and even Paul Muldoon, and their fans will be encouraged by the evidence of a cauldron of like-minded writers bubbling away beneath the surface of our attention. Trees of the Twentieth Century does not belong with the great works, but it was written from the same place. Furthermore, it implies Sturgeon has the imagination and intellect needed to write a great poem or be a great poet. Or maybe there is even more to these poems than I've seen. Regardless of how Sturgeon and this collection are ultimately evaluated, this is what poetry is supposed to feel like.    

Trees of the Twentieth Century by Stephen Sturgeon
Dark Sky Books
ISBN: 978-0983067436
58 pages