Kevin Stein—American Ghost Roses

Any book that features the work of Kandinsky on the cover is all right with me. But add the jittery lines of a hypertensive spirit, and you have an enticing concoction whose primary ingredient is JOLT cola. If you haven’t been to Illinois recently, then you probably wouldn’t know that Kevin Stein is the poet laureate of that state, a good blue state with fine credentials that make it deserving of anyone’s attention. The book begins (like the piece itself) with an ending. Throughout the book the shadow of the death of Stein’s father persists.

Wishful Rhetoric

Finis. I love the oh-so-postmodern opening—
the reversal of expectations intimating a fresh start,
as does potty-training or the pre-dinner after-dinner mint.
After all, in this way the end’s a beginning.

So Finis. There now, the daisies’ clean faces
need never wrinkle, their eyes never shut,
and the plump clump swaying in May breeze
need never dismantle June’s skeletal erector set.

That’s that. So the orchard’s Jonathan need not
drop and rot, the iris’s plush petals might
always enshrine its flushed lips, and the lilac
(my favorite) can spend its profligate scent

without fear of overdraft. Breathe in and forget
the out. I am the bank, the root, the fat honeycomb.
I am aphid milking an everlasting tit.
There now, I’ll make the twenty calls from home,

each beginning. “My father died last night.”

To my eyes, these lines jump around a bit. They are skittish, but they never lose focus or exhibit a sidewinding display of drift, nor are the items invoked gratuitously mentioned. The poems always seem to land on their feet. As I have a deep affinity for the jumpy and nervous, I find Stein to be lively and comfortable. Others may not. Like Dean Young, his mind ranges all over the map, but it is a different map than Young’s. In Skid Young often roots his poems in his own experience and the emotional content found therein, but he ranges into many other subjects which reflect his mediatized life. Stein does not stray too far from his experience in American Ghost Roses, especially because the main metaphor in the book is his father’s death, a kind of personal drama that I suspect Young would shy away from dealing with.

Yet, in many ways, these are the hardest subjects to pull off without sounding maudlin, overly obsessive about mortality, or sentimental (not to mention revealing details that could be hurtful). Whether it be his mother’s baking (see below) or the tale of a childhood friend who drank a bottle of Drano, or his experiences as semi-righteous activist for the cause of African Americans, the poems always come back to the biographical. There are few exceptions to this. One is “To Bob Marley’s Toe” which is a shorter piece that is solely a meditation on the cancer that eventually brought Bob down (which tangentially realtes to his father’s death). However, most of the time he deftly weaves his experience into the fray of what his imagination apprehends. Or conversely, he inserts quotations and other cultural ephemera into his experience. “Theory & Practice” is a good example of this. His transitions into these spheres are done self-consciously. The fits and starts he employs seem to be the terrain of his mind, and he is not making apologies for them. After all, how can it be helped if one is a herky-jerky dilettante?

Theory & Practice

Whenever I find my mother baking a cake,
I know someone’s dead. After the funeral mass,
her angel’s food soon sweetens bereaved lips.
Lévi-Strauss thought artists “shape the beautiful

and useful out of the dump heap of human life.”
He called it bricolage: using “whatever comes to hand.”
In this way the cook who’s magic with leftovers
practices culinary bricolage, and a nerd cobbling

together computer parts exhibits technical bricolage.
So the poet of apples and oranges makes what?
Fruit salad? Or should I take solace in
Heraclitus’s claim, “The fairest order is a heap

of random sweepings”? Perhaps, though remember
he thinks the ways up and down are one!
Which theiry explains what I make of
my mother’s baking? Let me start again.

When I was a boy, she peddled cakes and pies
to pay the week’s grocery bill. White-gloved
ladies rang our bell but didn’t come in. By then,
one’s read enough to know what urchin means.

Now she works the church’s Funeral Baking Committee,
doling her dished and sugared condolences
to kids of former customers. Do they taste
that taste and ponder their dead parents?

Archilochus contends, “The fox knows many things,
the hedgehog only one. One big one.”
Am I the hedgehog? Am I blind?
Try this: “Wisdom,” Heraclitus theorizes,

“understands the thought that steers all things,”
his way of praising in theory, well, covert Logos
the invisible cosmic order. In practice it goes
like this: What my mother baked went quick out

the door to cool upon the seats of Cadillacs.
One lady offered me a tip, not the usual nickel:
“Boy, remember your place. What you smell,
you’ll never taste.” Hers was devil’s food.

The thing that is always commendable and wonderful about Stein is his ability to get off the subject of his experience. Too many who write about experience dwell in the moment and milk it for all it’s worth. This practice always strikes me as a little too self-possessing. These kinds of writers can be smug about their experience without any pretense of broadening its significance. I suppose, too, it doesn’t hurt to have a predilection for capaciousness. Like Dean Young’s poems, most of Stein’s poems range from a page and a half to to two and a half pages. The accretion of detail upon detail (as Stein mentions above) definitely places him firmly within the school of “Apples and Oranges Make Fruit Salad” poets.

One other thing that Stein has a tendency to do is to modulate around the cliché. One masterful piece where he composes nearly the entire piece of confabulated clichés is “Upon Witnessing My Mother Impossibly Blossom above My Father’s Deathbed.” In the following piece there are numerous examples of this: “Yes, the best laid plans of mice and men go kaput/” and “When life thus gives
you lemons, it’s best to quaff the chocolate shake” and “And though a stopped clock’s right twice a day,/why look.” While these phrases might strike some readers as “cute,” they provide a counterbalance to the academic subjects he sometimes employs (for example, Kandinky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art is handled in one poem). The way they are twisted speaks to the “mind-at-play” oeuvre that suffuses his poems. Often times, too, he will use these as transitions to anchor the reader with something familiar before he launches into a different direction.

Perhaps with Kevin Stein there is just enough movement to keep the active reader going and interested but not enough to make the reader dizzy like so often times happens with the Colorado Review stable of writers whose works seem to labor at transitioning on every third word. The “clumps” that Stein provides us are more likely to lead to a cherished carpet of workable sod.

Won’t You Stand Next To My Fire

“Them’s my hands,” grinned the guy I tooled
cars with, showing off Smith’s Diesel Repair Manual
photos of hands cleaning valves, tempering
an ill-tempered crank shaft, oh anything
the “thinking man’s manual for engine repair”
ought to proffer a shot of hands doing. Flushed
with oily fingers turning pages he’d starred on,
he planned life as the lone hand model
beloved in truck stops: Free beer and apple pie,
then the Lava soap commercial. Step #1: Always
read Safety Instructions before yadda yadda yadda
Step # 2: Insert Part A into Part B and twist
clockwise. Instead he stuck his paw
where the warning’s “Never” had worn off.

Yes, the best laid plans of mice and men go kaput,
but sometimes Disney comes of it. After his lawsuit,
the mechanic took early retirement and cut
filet mignon with his left. When life thus gives
you lemons, it’s best to quaff the chocolate shake.
And though a stopped clock’s right twice a day,
why look? What’s catching you is you!
Once in Albuquerque, I misspelled misspelling seven times
grading a hzy legalization of marijuana research paper,
so I called it even and gave the kid a B. Once
in Albu-whatever the 24-hour Beef Jerky Hut
went belly up, so an artist hauled its steroidal
fiberglass bull down Route 66 to where his heifers
waited in pasture, all their neon parts aglow.

Who imagined the Guggenheim so enamored
of bovine art? Who knew Chicago “udderly bonkers”
for painted cows? Chance can be genius in disguise.
Ask Indiana’s radical feminists who ballpeened Adam’s
bronze penis while giving statuesque Eve a spit shine,
performance are the NEA funded in bunches. Sure,
some guys use theirs with all the subtlety of a hammer,
though research shows roses and acoustic guitar
statistically more succesful. Some guys, like Prometheus,
think everything’s better with fire. So Jimi Hendrix
set his aflame, a Fender Stratocaster he bequeathed
to Frank Zappa then promptly died. Unabashed,
Zappa recorded Zoot Allures with the charred guitar
before prostate cancer hammered his private parts.

Jimi, when in the course of human events you spark fire,
give it plenty of air. When we the people take a hammer
to bronze, it’ll just dent until brittle then piddle off.
When Zappa replaced the strings and a couple of pickups,
Hendrix’s Stratocaster peeled lead paint from schoolroom walls.
Not everything’s fixable, but then again
not everything’s broken. In this take heart.

There are instances where his lines become so emphatic about the sounds they are making, employing what Joshua Clover calls “mouthfeel” that they can offend, as Stein calls them in “Instructor’s Comments of the Poem ‘Eden Sleeping,” Circa 1975”, “those who’d otherwise enjoy understatement.” A line like “Let’s mouth the hour’s round bower of vowels/” in “Love Poem With Knife and Last Cut Zinnia” might be a bit too much for those folks. There is no doubt that he supercharges his lines so that they might be an assault on the senses of some. At times this over-the-top-ness seems to “get in the way.” But get in the way of what? Certainly his poems flaunt his self-consciousness. He is making no attempt to dissolve into the background. Humility isn’t his game. One supposes his ping-pinging brain is not of the quiet type, not of “the school of quietude” (as Silliman might refrain). As I stated above, his restlessness is one of his most endearing features, one that he plays up, for sure (but let’s be honest:—isn’t the soft-spoken humble type aware that he/she is presenting himself/herself that way?) Perhaps his overtly jump-cutting style is just a little more honest about its manner of presentation. It knows that its medium is part of the effect. Perhaps, though, this definition of “honesty” might raise the ire of those living in the red states.


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