Trees of the Twentieth Century, by Stephen Sturgeon. Dark Sky Books. 58 pp., $10.00.
Does poetry arise from accident? In an interview with Ted Powers of Dark Sky Books, the poet Stephen Sturgeon addresses this question, citing W. K. Wimsatt’s assertion that “A poem does not come into existence by accident. The words of a poem . . . come out of a head, not out of a hat.”
Sturgeon takes issue with this, pointing out that the experiences from which we cull material for poetry often arise from accident, and from accidental contact with words that come out of other heads. The poems of Trees of the Twentieth Century, his first collection, often deal with chance meetings with other texts and other people. In one of the collection’s most memorable poems, “Why I Called,” the speaker encounters a curious specter while putting away groceries:
I bought a bag of food
I took it home and put it on the table
It moved and flipped over
I looked at it
I opened it
My dead friend’s hand came out
Only accident can come close to explaining why we see the ghosts of our dead in unexpected places. Accident makes the strange normal. Ultimately, however, it is the author who chooses which of life’s chance experiences will factor into the making of a poem, and how to render them. The words and images of a poem come not from accident but from the author’s imagination. Imagination blurs the distinction between possibility and impossibility and allows for a response to the world in which our interactions take place. Poems may arise from accident, then, but not by accident.
Sturgeon’s poetry is fueled by this tension between circumstantial accident and individual imagination. In the opening poem, “Confabulators,” the speaker asks, “What do you speak after penguins enter / the trembling bear-baiting ring?” In other words, how do we attempt to explain the accidental, the unexplainable, using language? The choice of penguins and a bear-baiting ring seems random, and “trembling” is a bizarre way to describe an inanimate object. But the answer is in the title: we confabulate. The title describes both those who talk informally and those who replace fact with fantasy in their memory. Thus we create a new reality through language whenever we speak or write.
Much of Sturgeon’s work takes place within this mental universe, where physical impossibilities become possible. The poem “Gourmand” draws out an impossible idea as if it were a real-world situation:
I tasted each inch of the earth.
I did not like it but I did it.
There were extravagant flavors,
Gobi, Horse Track, Lava Field, London . . .
The speaker expresses a need to tell things exactly as they are, since the adjectives more conventionally used to describe taste fall short: “Soon Sweet, Acrid, and their family failed.” He thus calls into question whether conventional language is at all sufficient to describe his journey. It is commonplace to say that we want to see the world, but for the speaker, the world is not only visual but gustatory, and later tactile: “I etched a new map of the world / inside my roving mouth.” The world has left its imprint not only metaphorically but physically, engraved on the speaker’s body.
If nothing else, it is true that we live in a strange world. Poems like “Gourmand” and “Why I Called” follow a trail of impossible logic, but they are anchored in a world that is actually quite familiar. “Why I Called” mixes in elements of the mundane: the bag of food, the kitchen table, the recognizable communication between the speaker and the dead friend’s hand in the form of a wave hello and a thumbs up sign. The poems of Trees of the Twentieth Century are also grounded in the all-too-familiar concept of temporality. Sturgeon is less interested in place, in concrete location, than he is in the abstract notion of time. The spatial scope of a poem can be great, even celestial, and then condense in an instant, as in “Thoughts of a Man”:
Think of a man
arrayed on a beach
the force of the universe’s
total light combined
and concentrated on his nose
The location in space, shifting casually from the universe to a man’s nose, is less important here than the temporal progression of events, upon which the poem’s ability to communicate rests most heavily: “When we began to think / of this man and his various ways/we had no more use for the world.” It is this sequence of cause and effect, rather than the poem’s location in the physical world, which tells us the significance of the speaker’s thoughts of a man. Something similar happens in “Sunrise at Morning”:
But it is not the sun
prowling through Magellan’s fortressed hair
that pulls, planet-like, thoughts into an ear.
It is not the sun, an object we use to locate ourselves in space, which carries the poem’s weight, but the other half of the title: the morning, a concept we use to locate ourselves in time. The poem ends: “This morning I have seen my creature die. / It is not the sun that makes, or can feel / the interminable burning of standing still.”
Even those poems that do remain in a fixed location are poems of time rather than place. The measured pace of “Why I Called” is essential to the tone; it eases and almost normalizes the strangeness of the dead hand coming out of the bag:
I said hello
It wriggled its fingers at me
I said how are you
It gave me the thumbs up sign
I said what do you want
It pretended to write
I brought it pencil and paper
It wrote down your phone number
I called you
Each line is a short, matter-of-fact statement, and it is this matter-of-factness that lends the poem its humor.
A few of Sturgeon’s elegies for the poet Landis Everson also have a fixed location—“The Clothes of Coronado” again in the speaker’s kitchen, “40 Years of Science” on a spaceship. However, the underlying basis for those poems is not the location but the fact that someone who was alive in the past is now dead. In recalling a time when that person was alive, Sturgeon gives a temporal context to the space the poems inhabit and thus allows the reader to feel the extent of the grief that inspired them. As in “The Clothes of Coronado”: “Sometimes the view into my garden/is dim, and I juggle the phone/listening to whatever time there is, / the past, the future.”
But lest we forget that the poems are not drawn entirely from the metaphysical world, Sturgeon also makes the material world very much present. The material objects in these poems have a remarkable vitality and autonomy, and they make us think of larger, less tangible concepts, as in “Lines”: “when nothing is wasted/like when the sink drinks/water your glass missed.” The sink and the glass are not static and acted upon; rather, they both have agency, and they work in tandem to show that the nothing ever goes entirely to waste. Objects in Sturgeon’s poems are also capable of transformation. In “I Forget What You Say,” the wall, the shells, and the wreck are all part of the background: “The sealine mumbles up its binges, / scraps of a yellow wall bed down/with shells corroding on a wreck of shoals.” These become some of the makings of a human being in the following poem, “1996 Snow Ball”:
He like a wall built
from the remains of sixteen
for his life there’s a light bulb a trash can a
medium sized railroad spike a mirror
with goldflake fringe a chair with bone
inlay a safety switch a fire ax,
and “I have banned such plan
as would commemorate her entry
unless she trail a train of shell
Here the years are walls, built from the debris and detritus of the subject’s past. Only fragments of objects that were once whole become part of the person; on a chronological journey, as on a physical one, you can’t take everything with you. Sturgeon’s poems are conspicuous not only for what is included but for what is left out or partially hidden from view, for the questions left unanswered. Why the Victorian furniture juxtaposed with the light bulb and trash can? What is the quotation doing there? And why the sudden appearance of an “I,” when nowhere else in the poem is the speaker’s presence apparent? While more gradual and logical transitions would perhaps be illuminating, the lack thereof gives the reader a sense of disorientation that mirrors that of the two adolescents whose relationship the poem describes.
Other poems demonstrate that attempts to come up with logical explanations for unusual occurrences can be futile. In “The Sailor’s Head,” passersby guess at the reason for the sailor’s head’s presence in their community, and while their guesses are logical enough, they are never correct. Their conjectures read like accusations:
“You must have come from striking far
to spread your country’s ideas here.”
“That is not why. It was not far.”
“Then you have taken to that tree
to witness our philosophy.”
“I did not do it. I can’t see.”
The form of their questions quickly progresses from the inquisitive “you must have,” which leaves room for possibilities they have not yet thought of, to the closed and definitive “then you have.” The sailor’s head’s assertion of innocence—“I did not do it”—implies that he has been blamed. Even the speaker, though more sympathetic, fails in his attempt to discern the reason by using logic: “Such quiet thrived in that tree’s bends. // it could be why the head came there—/to fixate a shambolic fear. / It is not why. It cannot hear.” Though the poem’s logic does not hold up to close scrutiny—the sailor’s head could not possibly respond if it could not hear or see—it shows that the rational truth or the convenient truth is not necessarily the true truth. The truth, of course, is that the uncanny presence in the tree is unexplainable.
All poems, ultimately, are failed attempts to explain the unexplainable through language. Poems often emerge from the tensions between logic and truth, accident and imagination, spatial and temporal. Trees of the Twentieth Century is concerned with the times when these come into conflict, creating strange and unexplainable situations Or, as Sturgeon puts it in “The Confabulators”:
is not a native tongue; still, you have no
second language to beg help. Speak error.
. . .
Buenos dias, mon ami. All will right itself
In our honesty. These errors are correct.
The contradictions, though they make no logical sense, are nonetheless interesting and often more honest than the language of the explained and familiar. Walt Whitman said: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The contradictory elements in this collection can plunge the reader into confusion; and yet, somehow, Sturgeon’s poems always hold up.
Liza Katz’s essays and poems have appeared in the Critical Flame, Literary Matters, Clarion, and Exit 13. She is at work on a book-length essay entitled Bridging the Gap between French and Francophone Literature.
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