Saturday, January 10, 2009

Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer is the author of four poetry collections: The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), and Goodbye to the Orchard (2004), which won the 2005 Sheila Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club, and was named a 2005 Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book.

Recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he currently directs the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Thank you for asking what I'm reading. I love the panic that question always provokes. “Have you been reading?” asks a punky inner voice. “And, if so, anywhere nearly deeply enough?” asks a punkier one. Let’s always hope the answer is yes to the former; let’s always admit the honest answer is no to the latter.

I’ve been reading and rereading Jonathan Weinert's first book of poetry, In the Mode of Disappearance (Nightboat Books, 2008), one of the thornier and more rewarding first collections I've encountered in long awhile. It's hard to write about poetry—which is an event of language or it is nothing—without quoting. From "Sauve": "If I could climb into death now/as into a foreign car, where/in all of France would you drive me?" Who wouldn't want to read on?

Weinert is a difficult poet influenced by difficult poets—Blake, Stevens—and he takes an angular, often oblique approach to his subjects. His imagery, diction, and syntax, though, are always acute. Pentameter ghosts haunt even his most colloquially enjambed lines, Wordsworth channeled via O’Hara—

You looked well but you wouldn’t speak to me
I guessed your silence was the darling hat
you’d purchased at Les Halles, with the three
red berries on a fine red mesh

—with a nod to Pound’s “wét bláck bóugh” for good measure.

When a post-modernist winks at a modernist, we expect and often get a blind eye turned to content. Unlike so many first-book poets, though, Weinert never gives the bird to total effect. Still, you have to work to keep up:


I fled from heaven's ordinance.

There was a field of gentians there
patched with lilies—
lily-faces white with expectation.

On earth, the sun was setting for the final time.

Earth to heaven, heaven to earth, earth to sun. Fifteen more lines delta out into a wider visionary map—at times apocalyptic, at times primordial. Who charts this strange itinerary? Whoever has had to flee from heaven. You don’t need to read far to imagine who that might be.

But you do have to have read. I’ve shown Weinert’s work to poets who enjoy the zeitgeist platitudes of Mary Oliver, or the stand-up shtick of Billy Collins; they’ve scratched their heads at In the Mode of Disappearance and turned away. I’ve shown Weinert’s poetry to literate readers mostly unschooled in contemporary poetry but loyal to Blake, Wordsworth, Dickinson; they’ve scratched their heads too, and then reread In the Mode of Disappearance. Good news or bad? It’s always bad news when poets don’t like poetry; always good news when readers do.

Speaking of Ms. Dickinson, this fall I again experienced that pleasure like no other: rereading the work of America’s greatest poet, this time book-to-book with an exceptionally gifted MFA student. The well never dries up, whether it’s a poem you thought you knew so well you couldn’t imagine it speaking to you anew, or a poem that seemed to be closed until a reader-companion helped open its “door ajar” (a key Dickinsonian image). How many know this one?—

The World—feels Dusty
When We stop to Die
We want the Dew—then—
Honors—taste dry—

Flags—vex a Dying face—
But the least Fan
Stirred by a friend’s Hand—
Cools—like the Rain—

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes—
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch—
And Hybla Balms—

It helps to know that Hybla is (was?) a town in Sicily famous for its honey. But does it hurt not to know? Imagine these words spoken to you. Could one feel any less entirely loved in his final hour? Incidentally, this poem is one of twelve set to music by Aaron Copland—public artist, covert man—who knew well how flags could vex.
Visit Steven Cramer's website and read many of his poems.

--Marshal Zeringue