By Joyce Peseroff, WTP Contributing Editor
Steven Cramer knows his way around a poem more than almost anyone I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. Quote a Dickinson line, and he’ll bring up two examples of how she uses the same diction elsewhere. He’ll find a writer like Robert Walser and re-envision his microscripts in subversive texts with sly narratives. Cramer’s techniques dazzle, and they’re always in the business of shedding light rather than gilding a stone.
He’s part of an indispensable writing group I’ve relied on for two decades. Along with Teresa Cader, he’s probably read every poem I’ve written, and certainly all I’ve published. I depend on his impeccable eye to detect, from my plethora of detail, the necessary, telling one. And although he teases me about suggesting he cut entire stanzas from his work, there’s no one I listen to more closely when I need to condense a wordy passage. I also rely on his ear; as a former drummer, he uncovers rhythms and beats by changing the break of a line. I can’t review Listen (Cheshire, MA: Mad Hat Press, 2020) objectively. Instead, let me offer an appreciation of what Steven Cramer’s new book accomplishes.
Listen begins in an intimate wrestle with depression. “Bad” employs rhetoric and repetition to stress the speaker’s claustrophobia: “It got bad; pretty bad; then not/so bad; very bad; then back to bad.” “The three years I spent on Mars/mainly I felt bored,” Cramer writes, deadpan, in “A Cosmography of Melancholy.” Contrast the poem’s detached tone with the dread-inducing surrealism of “Written During a Depression.” Here Cramer likens a night’s forgotten dreams to “four to six excursions into a mailbox the size of a covered bridge, where a family of scorpions affix price tags to paperweights.” “Mailbox” duels with “covered bridge” as transitory space; “family” and “scorpions” combine to set teeth on edge, and what might be sealed inside those desert souvenirs but other scorpions?
Subsequent sections include tender poems to family, illuminated by “…fireflies/that teased a summer lawn/decades ago, the flash-black-flash of belly lamps.” Cramer’s disarming dialogue with an absent “Love”—this is a “Self-Portrait with Insomnia, Rocks, and Fireflies,” and it’s “well past midnight”—includes interrogation: “They’re beetles, not flies—/did you know that?”; confession: “Neither did I”; explanation: “A sort of enzyme—Luciferin—combines/with oxygen to create their light”; and wonder: “Nobody knows what makes the light/switch on and off.” As each sentence qualifies the preceding one, Cramer transforms speech acts into dynamic actions, each haloed with feeling.
Cramer’s poems have often investigated the nature of the self. Divided in his previous collection Clangings, in Listen his “I” becomes a quandary; whether and how it exists, an open question. Sometimes it’s an object, like the “oblong stone…/kissed and kissed…” in “Self-Portrait…” Sometimes memories comprising a self are erased, as when, in “Lackawanna,” “I couldn’t love/songs I loved;//friends came/nameless as mailmen…” “Without a Name for This” asks, “How do you learn to look to yourself like a child,/with understanding and bewilderment at once?”
But understanding has its limits. Imagining, in “Chthonic,” his daughter’s and her friends’ “…future boys/in the vestibule, shuffling their hooves,/all trident-quick moves once in the car—,” Cramer concludes, “think too much, thought’s a venomed pelt.” “The Question” envisions one “so compelling/anyone who asked it…/was brought…to their senses.” When sensory overload “cut[s] to the brain like a stroke,” authors “dump their laptops,” painters “slash their canvases” and professors “relapse into undergrads/grieving their grades.” These dissolving identities won’t be restored any time soon. Though neuroscientists may “light up/sections of the brain where empathy resides,” “reside” remains a shadowy metaphor as our poor, easily manipulated egos wait “for even the smallest reward.”
Though Listen’s speakers—antic, wry, restless, soul-searching—often stand in for the poet, among the book’s most compelling pieces are those we’ve taken to calling, after Lowell, “imitations.” For these loose translations, some with titles or epigraphs including “After,” the sources range from Robert Walser’s surreal prose to Osip Mandelstam’s all-too-real Stalin epigram. Listen ends with one of my favorites, an adaptation of Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Bohemia Lies by the Sea”:
If the houses here are green, I’ll step into a house.
If the bridges can’t hold up, I’ll walk on firm ground.
If every age loses its labor of love, I give up mine here.
If I’m not the one, someone is, and worth what I’m worth.
After the tumult of Listen—its linguistic fireworks; its charring wit; its characters, absurdities, griefs and joys held in precarious juxtaposition—the reader lands in “Bohemia” with a serenity that accepts what the future may hold. I hear an echo of the “intelligent” mechanical horse with its “formal, melancholy soul” from Bishop’s “Cirque d”Hiver,” its final line: “Well, we have come this far.” With Listen, Steven Cramer illuminates a life’s journey while provoking reflection on our deepest, half-understood desires.
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