In Pursuit of the Debutant

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Trees of the Twentieth Century
by Stephen Sturgeon
Softcover, $10.00
Dark Sky Books, March 2011

What to make of Stephen Sturgeon after reading his first book of poetry, Trees of the Twentieth Century? Sturgeon, the debutant? Sturgeon, the first major poet of his generation? Sturgeon, producer of some of the finest poems in the English language?

He is obviously the first of these, though the latter claims require some qualification. And it is worth asking: Who are the proclaimers? There is an unshakeable culpability in having your friends name you the new century’s poet wunderkind. Sturgeon himself knows he is no longer very kindly, so to speak, pushing thirty-two. One feels for a poet who is trying to make his own reputation while his supporters are already asserting that his reputation is secure. All three blurbs on the back cover are Sturgeon’s co-editors at Fulcrum, a journal of poetry and poetics. Ben Mazer, as he gives impossibly high praise for Sturgeon, is in a position of very obvious reciprocation; Sturgeon likewise called Mazer’s latest book “The richest work of American poetry so far this century.” The risk of mingling in a society of geniusmongers is myopia. But their enthusiasm, if genuine, is nobody’s fault. And the poetry survives it.

That is not to say Sturgeon is sui generis; his gestures feel familiar; attempts to categorize his poetry succeed. He oscillates between imagistic poems — in which the poet has left the words and the reader must invent the logic to make sense of them himself — and more inaccessible poems. The challenge Sturgeon faces most often in his work is to be difficult rather than otiose, to make the metaphors tensile rather than parenthetical. The second epigraph to Trees of the Twentieth Century, from the Vorticist painter and author Wyndham Lewis, is transparent enough — “There is a point beyond which we must hold people responsible for accidents: [sic]” — Sturgeon is concerned with the coincidentals of language and verse, the arbitrary, writing that is almost (though not) automatic. It calls to mind the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, absurdists, and stream of consciousness. It recalls a kind of poetry that means to confound us.

Schools of poetry, though, are political parties, and Sturgeon’s political gesture is a wink, not flagellation. It is antihegemonical, which is to say, Socratic. In key moments he offers critique: “I do not know the proper tone to take”, we are told in “The Confabulators.” This is surely the alpha and omega of John Ashbery’s prosody, an almost singular concern with register over all other modes of communication. Sturgeon also nods to the tired avant garde: “Just forge my autograph to this warrant / and assume my attendance at the birth.” This is as swift a dispatch of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreativity” as I have seen, and by itself earns Sturgeon a special place in my heart. The banal poet’s wet dream is to be given the credit for the profundities his or her work has no relation to, but to take none of responsibility —ego ad infitum. Sturgeon is quietly stepping out of the shadow of today’s clowns with his ironic asides. He is taking responsibility, but not taking a stand. In fact, his clearest indication of a credo, from “Cohoes Falls,” reveals something close to confession-cum-poetry, but more dis-missive:

In another town minutes ago
I made 20 dollars on Sparks Street bumbling to my home,

because in the road I found it, and I make what I find.

More impressive than his mastered shifting tones and multilayered critiques, though, are his images, which are legion and are allowed to stand by themselves (in other words, “What does it mean when things / present themselves; it means, it means that we have seen them; that’s over. That’s over.”) His metaphors, more often than not held together in tension like kite string, pair the profane with the sublime. In his brilliant ode to the fetishism of the sublime, “Thoughts of a man,” he instructs us:

Think of a man
arrayed on a beach

the force of the universe’s
total light combined
and concentrated on his nose

[. . .]

Someone more like a water faucet

than is customary
He had priestly teeth
and a head like a carwash

In “Satan in Heaven” and “Parerga” (Latin for “sidejobs”) he relates this logic of metaphor to reenactment of the Fall. In the former poem, Satan finds himself “among the savage environments, / enjoying it.” In the latter, we are told the Expulsion “cannot translate angelic malfeasance / into the precursor to a prayer / or find words in the God-damned fields and trees.” We can no longer let God do the damning and consecrating for us, we must do it ourselves. That seems to be, for Sturgeon, the task of the poet. And his model is, more than anything, enthusiastic, the source of which is the furies rather than the muses, exhibiting itself as possession rather than inspiration. The other epigraph at the front of the book, from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, describes an incident in Greece in which the tragedy Andromedais so impressive it drives its entire audience mad, in a fever, reciting poetry. Robert Lowell and John Berryman and Ben Mazer are daemonic presences in Sturgeon’s poetry, and so it is less-than-unexpected that Sturgeon should sink so far into the macabre in poems like “Forever in El Dorado.”

“In Pursuit of the Curtain Rod” takes us, in its near-nonsense, through the dark forests of the Torrible Zone, bringing us from children’s and chivalric play through Kafka and Beckett. Rereading has a negative effect, where sentences that seemed to be grotesque turn out to resist even syntactic substance, and all that remains is a terrifying implication: “Houdini, who lapped the scurf from his sores, / all vacant nooses complaining for work,” et cetera. It finds itself somewhere between composition and compilation, a kind of index by a traumatized librarian. In the end, though, one is left with the sense that the poem is not so much what it wants to be, problematic, but rather cartoonish:

A man tracked a curtain rod that blazed through a forest,
and as he furiously traveled, with him there went

the hair of Jesus’ head inching along,
a river of skulls a black girl swam,
bells in the sun at cascade and ring,
tallow swept up from a fast-burning palm,
Britain’s crown jewels stitching one hundred shirt collars,
moldering tree stumps that suckled a boy,

The poem is admirable, even inspired, but not quite as accomplished as those jacket blurbs claim. It does, though, mark a move beyond this book into a fuller, more mature poetry. What we have is a small first book by a young poet who is steadily overcoming his precursors and would-be-enablers. He’s somebody we have real reason to watch and maybe envy.

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About James Stotts

James Stotts is a poet and critic living in Boston. His work has appeared in AGNI, Little Star, and elsewhere.