Tuesday, May 22, 2007



WHAT’S THE MATTER by Jordan Stempleman
(Otoliths, Australia, 2007)

I decided to review Jordan Stempleman’s WHAT’S THE MATTER because just a few pages into the collection, the poems triggered an idea for a poetic structure that I might use to write new poems. This result is significant, not because others may care about how I write poems but, because it reflects one of the key tests for me -- but also for many writers, moithinks -- as to a literary work’s power, that is, whether it will compel the reader-who-happens-to-be-a-writer to write anew.

In this case, Stempleman’s poems triggered a notion of writing a poem, then editing it to begin with the 3rd or a later stanza -- to simply edit out the first stanza would not be the rule since that might just eliminate a warm-up stanza that’s not unusual to be found in first drafts. That’s the first set of poems which then would have a “pushed” energy into the poems (hopefully enervating the reading of the actual text). Then, in a “redux” series, I envision presenting the edited out stanzas as poems on their own, which in turn might generate a “push” energy beyond their last lines, manifesting the idea that the poem continues beyond the words on the page.

Here’s an example of one of Stempleman’s poems that got my thoughts going on this path:

As it works may remember

likely, there are stretches that are endless

in concentration, endless and tonight for in the bundles

hidden in the layers, the strangeness of the word,

used here, as shrunken areas, enlivened

fabrics in swell, and the sound of these possessions,

leak from each emptying involved

For me, I sensed an energy before the first word and continuing after the last word. It’s not a type of resonance dependent on (perceived) meaning (and how one might react to the gleaned meaning). It’s more pure energy -- such a strong energy that even its fragment is generative; perhaps it’d be like, if you happen to glance out the window at night to see a the landscape awash in white light, then you'd see in your mind's eye the image of the big fat bright moon (once, I actually experienced this phenomenon).

The generative effect of Stempleman's poems also stems from other elements in WHAT’S THE MATTER. For one, there’s a gentleness, a welcome hushed-ness, to several of the poems, e.g.


don’t know where to come from

to send word to the homes

or the houses we find do not lend

the remaining structures that sit

through a new family or endurance

the cuffed sounds of the children

they once wrapped or endured

a mood returns to the dream

that returns our presence

and sees the leafing visit

round and shambling

the coats of paint

a sincere late rain

the available time

where anything holds

and assures until moving

And even when a poem seeks to “goof around” the tone remains calm as in this hay(na)ku sequence:

Birthday Poem
-for Tom Beckett

heart, it
turns out, goofs

around, often while
it’s off

calls this
nonsense, flirting, or

bedroom eyes
at the brain.

Certainly, there was a logic to my discovering a poem entitled “Cento: James Wright” as the lyricism and peace I sense in Wright’s poems are also present here.

The poet also reveals himself to be a philosopher in a number of poems, and this layer, when combined with other elements, create a, say, healing effect for a reader with a “sore [one] can’t trade” (“The Narrative”). It’s not easy to pull off the combination of intensity and, yet, easy-goingness here; the calm that pervades the book is not due to denial of reality’s harshness:


suppose I am a stand in for what totals the sleepless

conditions in those radiology wards

where the iron father says you should see what happens

when I eat enough muscles the earth no longer matters

and no one is struck by the face of planets paved light

or the sadness that they’d send for us

in the unfinished comforts they blindly advance

I’ve been talking primarily about the collection’s overall effect (tone) which, in turn, made me respond first to this collection as a book. It’s a hilarious -- and impressive -- irony because I realized AFTER my first draft of the review that Stempleman may have sidestepped the notion of organizing this project as a collection, versus just presenting a group of poems. That is, the Table of Contents reveals that the poems are presented alphabetically per their titles. (This is the first time I’ve noticed this in a poetry collection -- I’ve only seen something similar before in anthologies where each contributor is presented by the alphabetical order determined by their names.) This ordering implies no additional arc, in terms of the author’s intent, beyond whatever the reader gleans from the poems.

Realizing this certainly focused my mind anew on looking at the poems on an individual basis, rather than within the context of the book’s overall effect on me. It’s a satisfying experience since there are so many lovely lines throughout the book. “Boone” contains a favorite: “a sincere late rain”. Does one need to be a farmer or live in an agricultural community (as I do) to appreciate the aptness of this line? As I write this, I believe Napa Valley has received only 80%-plus of its average rainfall for the winter (the contrast against last winter’s 200% rainfall bespeaks the global warming effect). And as, in January and February, Napa Valley residents went back and forth between enjoying unseasonable spring days vs. the desire for rain, “sincere late rain” captures the relieved reaction to each rainy day that always also seemed belated. If only due to this reader’s farming perspective (grin) -- but which is also to say that philosophy never melts to abstraction but retains its link to the world’s “actual condition” -- I think this line is brilliant.

By the way, in case notions of hushed-ness, calm, gentleness serve to start you to yawning about what the book contains, it also should be noted that the poet has a sense of humor:

Peabo Bryson

Oh, not to be a dick, but

I would appreciate a little

variety in poetic approach

and strategy, especially since

this approach strikes me as

frequently fey and brittle.

Everything you’ve done

has had the same formal

strategy and poetic effect.

One problem with your

current approach, is that

it allows for absolutely no

emotional modulation or

specificity/complexity: it’s

all set in this vaguely

ethereal register that strikes

one as a assort of vacant

elevator music/dad music

for the experimental sort.

Well: wink!

All in all, if “there is nothing so beautiful / as something that’s found its way” (“Fluted”), then I’m happy these poems found their way into a book, got published, and are now available for your reading delectation -- specifically as a haven from, as the poet puts it in “Fluted,” the strident hollows that live / for this same world.”


Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...