Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review of Steve Roberts' Another Word for Home

Review of Another Word for Home, by Steve Roberts
Main Street Rag (2010), 70 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482491

In Steve Roberts’ “The Lamp, the Glass and the Pencil,” arguably the best poem in his new collection, Another Word for Home, an employer asks the speaker, “Do your poems always center around / Yourself?” The simple implication of the question is that there is something wrong if every poem “centers around” oneself--rampant egotism or narcissism, perhaps, or some unhealed woundedness that causes the self to be the lens through which all perception is filtered . . . but wait a minute; with or without woundedness, the self will always be the lens through which perception is filtered, and to ignore rather than explore that fact is to indulge in a larger sort of egotism by which one presumes their own experiences and perceptions to be objective fact rather than acknowledging the way the self influences what one sees, hears, feels. The employer in the poem is certainly not the first to level this sort of criticism at what has in the past and might still be termed confessional poetry. Both this employer and these prior critics would do well to read a bit a further as five poems later, in “Business,” the presumably same speaker gives as good a justification for the confessional tendencies of these poems as I’ve ever encountered when he remarks: “I have learned / The unsaid can manufacture // Disturbances.”

These two poems illustrate several impressive characteristics of Roberts’ collection. First, of course, there is the vindication of confessionalism, which I’m sure was not anything Roberts set out to do, but which is nonetheless resoundingly achieved in poems like “The Ground Firms Up the Wet,” “Bonewhite Plane Drones,” and “Gyre.” And, given that the book begins with the line, “I locate,” and repeats that idea of locating the self amid the maelstrom of perception, memory, and circumstance that is reality in poems like “Gyre” (“derive the location / Of the sun from an oak’s restless / Shadow”) and “Location, Location,” perhaps the creation of poetry “centered around” the self is exactly what Roberts set out to do. It may be instructive to recall, after all, that in Rosenthal’s original conception of confessionalism the only differences between poems identified as confessional and traditional lyrical poetry were the absence of masks and the “customary bounds of reticence or personal embarrassment.” Flipping forward to the last poem of the book, “Under Construction” places these confessional poems firmly within the rubric of another hermeneutical context, that of deconstructionism, as the complex psychic presence of memory and past perception must be constantly reevaluated in the construction of one’s ever-evolving self.

The second characteristic of Roberts’ book made apparent in “The Lamp, the Glass and the Pencil” and “Business” is an integral part of the book’s deconstructionist context, namely, the habit of creating linked poems, usually by providing an answer in one poem to a question that arose out of a poem several pages prior. Such is the case not only in these two poems, but in virtually every poem in the book, including “The Ground Firms Up the Wet,” which prompts the reader to wonder about the source of the “Mother’s denial, / Rage and revenge,” and wait expectantly for other poems to clarify the father’s alcoholism, the daughter’s schizophrenia, and her own sense of failure as the sources of these feelings. The effect of this sort of linking is that the poems create a sense of a single, unified story, compelling the reader forward and creating a simultaneously satisfying and disturbing sense of vraisemblance as we recognize what we already knew but hesitated to admit -- that no experience is self-contained, that everything, every word, every choice has innumerable causes, consequences, and reverberations both large and small.

As remarkable a feat as it is to vindicate confessional poetry and simultaneously create a complex and meaningful lifelikeness in poetry, perhaps what is most impressive in these poems is the sense of control with which Roberts writes. Many of these poems are based on disturbingly intense emotional experiences and all of them on the frustrating and sometimes frightening complexities of human relationships, and yet, there is not a poem among them that could be considered a rant. Similarly, condescension, cynicism, sarcasm, self-indulgent cleverness, rage -- all the things we might expect from a survivor’s story of emotional unrest -- are entirely absent, replaced instead with such careful and precise choice of words, phrasing, and arrangement of lines that what results is a voice of calm, evenhanded sincerity that the reader responds to with empathy and complete trust. The technical mastery that creates such a response from the reader results from painstaking control at every level of composition. A brief scanning of endwords illustrates that Roberts is much more conscious of the vitality of line breaks than many of his contemporaries. The tightness and subtle regularity of his lines and stanzas makes clear that he carefully orchestrates every detail of his poems. Observe, for example, the absence of superfluous syllables in these lines from “Boot Up,” where every word conveys vital meaning and image despite the ironic and self-deprecatory last statement:

At the nub
Of the cross-beamed, rivet-rusted
trampled one-end

To-the-other fishing pier,
No more human structure, no more
Outpouring of expectation.

From here on, it’s nothing
But ocean, the source of our amoebic,
Word-failed selves.

Roberts is keenly aware not only of the sound of these poems but also the shape of the poems. Several of them, in fact, have a “concrete” appearance. Each of his first three Angelika poems, for example, are set typographically in the form of what I first thought to be a vase, calling up thoughts of Keats, but is later revealed in “Embryonic” to be “An hourglass-figured woman.”

There is so much more that can be said about Steve Roberts’ Another Word for Home, but these three characteristics are the most significant. Nothing else is needed to mark it as a book that is worthy of being read by all who enjoy the ways poetry works and is relevant to the real world, and as a book that I will read again and again.

1 comment:

  1. I love how you talk about vindicating confessional poetry. We need someone to do that. And narrative! I have seen many eyes roll when I say something is a narrative poem!