When reading a poet completely unknown to me, I always try to avoid getting too much information about him/her beforehand. This is not always easy to do, given the prevalence of publishers’ advance notices, press releases, ‘puffs’ and ‘prelims’. So when an opportunity presents itself to read an author whose work one has never encountered before, it is an opportunity to be grasped as a way of getting straight into the heart of his mystery, unfettered by other peoples’ opinions.
When I enquired in Powell’s bookshop in Chicago about contemporary poets from that city writing at the moment, the helpful shop assistant picked out a few books, among which was Stuart Dybek’s ‘Streets in Their Own Ink’, a collection of 35 poems, published in 2004 in New York by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. My copy was a hardback edition, thereby allowing me to remove the informative dust-jacket, with its bios, critical comments and endorsements prior to making Stuart’s acquaintance. This option is one of the advantages of a hard-back edition, thereby allowing one to read the book without being encumbered by hyperbolic statements (” … only once in a generation do we find a writer who … etc., etc.”).
So it was I set off into Stuart’s book, powered by the full sails of my ignorance, with only the title to hint that it was to be a poetic overview of the poet’s city, and a quotation from Apollinaire. This nod to that most idiosyncratic of poets, whom we lost so tragically and at such an early age, was also a hint of things poignant (and surreal?) to come and was for me a good omen because he is one of my old-time favorites. So it is that, even without blurbs and bios, it is hard to escape being ‘pre-dispositioned’, but at least these prelims are chosen by the poet himself are therefore an integral part of the work itself.
The first poem usually (though not always) sets a tone for a collection and offers a hint of things to come. ‘Windy City’ is such a hint. As a poem of place it unfurls itself in cascades of comparisons, which ripple down through the poem to end with an image that reflects its flowing structure:
I remember closing my eyes as I stepped
Into a swirl of scuttling leaves.
‘Scuttling leaves’ is something of a cliché’ but its position here at the end of the poem gives it new life (and is it one of a poet’s functions to rescue words and phrases and recuperate them?). This is a poem of startlingly original comparisons (‘at night, wind rippled saxophones/that hung like wind chimes/in pawnshop windows’) and a poem well-suited to begin the collection, providing a vivid glimpse of the Chicago known intimately to him. Its fast pace is emblematic of the Chicago I glimpsed during my short stay: a city confident of itself and busy without ever being too preoccupied to stand and chat.
Many poems I find particularly appealing because of the way in which they reach down into my own childhood memories, such as ‘Bath’, which is so evocative of my own childhood and the women who cared for me:
She mops a washcloth down his spine and scrubs
until his bones glow with the inner light of porcelain …
This remembering of childhood events similar to my own and the religious backdrop to many of the poems is deeply affecting to me. ‘Benediction’ I find particularly appealing, with its epiphany-like moment:
For me, the complexity of a grasshopper
from the Congo behind a billboard
was irrefutable proof
of God and his baffling order.
The more tangible experience of everyday life ‘as it is lived’ is evident in poems like ‘Election Day’ with its hints of irregular voting practices (a phenomenon not unknown in my own country):
muscled the shadows as if the dead
were lurking—lost souls, spirits wandering
like drunks wondering where they’d parked
their cars, ghosts—most of them still voting …
The last poem in this first of three sections, ‘Angelus’, shifts the focus to a higher spiritual level and prepares the reader for the rather mystic tone of section II, which offers a glimpse behind (or beyond) the outlines of the city. The first poem, ‘Sirens’, is preoccupied by what the surface sights and sounds might suggest of another reality somehow running along under the material world, a reality glimpsed sometimes in those dreams during which one awakes suddenly, feeling that surfaces were stripped away and a truer true account of one’s was life laid bare, though in a format hard to decipher:
As dreamers know, it’s possible
to rush in silence toward disaster
the way one rushes toward desire.
In general, the poems in this section have a more spatial structure. There are less of the left-justified and blocky certainties of section I and more of that suggestiveness that couplets and triplets and blank spaces can bring to a piece. ‘Sleeper’, for example, glides down the page, slowly releasing the suggestion that a lot is happening when, seemingly, very little is (‘A sleeper/purifies a room…’) and ‘Seven Sentences’ has an enigmatic feel of ancient maxims being handed down:
It will take more than a new day to erase tonight’s moon.
In ‘Three Nocturnes’ we return to the region of dreams and their revelations (‘… loneliness/seems just another/way of loving/only yourself.’)
As I mentioned above, those aspects of a poet’s life which are closely aligned with one’s own are bound to draw a reader closer to a writer and the resulting empathy is bound to contribute to the reasons why a reader ‘likes’ a particular poet more than others. In this section (II) it is Dybeck’s and my own shared experience of a religious upbringing which is aligned. There is too the feeling that this religious faith has never quite left him, no more than it has left me, despite my many rebellions. The way a person is taught to see the world in the formative years stays as the basis of one’s world-view, no matter how many times it seems one has left it behind. I am surprised (and pleased) at the astonishingly naive (and somewhat ‘unfashionable’) reference to the Creator in poems like ‘Benediction’. But then, I have always thought that naiveté (and ‘unfashionabless’!) is one of a poet’s strengths, probably because I am that way myself,
Section III includes some longer poems and therefore gives a wider reading of the concerns broached earlier. The gritty realism of the earlier poems (e.g., ‘Ginny’s Basement’) seems to have blended with the spiritual dimensions of the middle section which is mainly concerned with memory and the trick it can play. The imagery moves more definitely towards the surreal and brings back to mind the quotation from Apollinaire given in the opening of the book.
(Who are the great forgetters
Who will know just how to make us forget such and such a part of the world
Where is Christopher Columbus to whom we owed the forgetting of a continent)
‘Vespers’ is a series of poems, commencing with a short piece in which ‘… an altar boy kneels ringing a bell / at the shoreline of an undertow…’. I have to think a little about the ‘undertow’ bit, but the image of the altar boy sends me back immediately to St James’s Church in Dublin in the 1950s where I shivered through many an early Mass on many a cold morning. This combination of the strikingly clear and evocative alongside the more unexpected images continues through this section, which presents another look, from another angle, at his city and its sometimes eccentric inhabitants:
Beneath a daylight moon, the bag lady
kids called the Hag
foraged doubled beneath the hump
she lugged everywhere.
Other pieces catch the reader’s attention. In a poem beginning ‘What was the record wingspan for a crucified Christ?’, an arresting line in itself, the poet ends with a somewhat surreal memory:
Once, when I thought I was in Love,
I was sure I recognized the imprint of her lips
on the wounds of his feet.
The poem that follows the ‘Vespers’ series stand alone. ‘Revelation’ and also is concerned with memory and the way memory works. Or rather … just suppose it didn’t work?
Suppose the past could not be recalled
any more than we can foretell the future
This is a fascinating, thought-provoking poem which, in my view, would work even better if the last stanza were omitted.
‘Anti-Memoir’, the series of poems that concludes the book, takes up where ‘Revelation’ left off and continues with a close examination of the workings of memory, visiting various streets of the city, some ‘… whose name and numbers / have been erased, although at dusk / smoke from its chimneys still hovers / as filmy as black lingerie’ and other streets ‘without trees, without seasons’. These are ethereal and surreal landscapes where ‘grated pawnshops appear / to jail all the lovely instruments / condemned to exile by electric guitars’ – this last image a neat reference back to the opening poem of the collection ‘Windy City’ where
At night, wind rippled saxophone
that hung like wind chimes.
in pawnshop windows …
There is a poem too that echoes the title of the book (‘This is a street whose tentacles / ravel about you, drawing you in, / la calle en su tinta, / a street stewed in its own ink). But, ethereal or surreal, these are the poet’s familiar places where
Alone, along a street that’s suddenly
like any other, you’re blessed
simply to continue
another night’s walk home.
This is an accomplished collection, carefully presented. Sometimes perhaps alliteration is employed too much (‘… the complexity of a grasshopper catapulting from the Congo…’) and sometimes too many images employed too close together can result in a loss of vividness overall (‘The walls are a journal kept by crowds / passing into a phantasmagoric mural, / graphite coats and tablets of tenements / with the scorched patina of angels…’). However, these are minor quibbles. This is a poetry that appeals to me, with its weighed words (the word ‘Nacre’, for instance, in ‘Sleepers’. I had to look it before I could appreciate how apt a word it is for the work it has to do) and its weighed lines. There is no flab here. In my view, less is always more, and this is one of the reasons I have always found poets like Whitman tedious.
Deceptive effortlessness is also a hallmark of good writing and the more especially, perhaps, of good poetry. To disguise the midnight oil and elbow grease, to have the graceful line be just that and unremarkable until the reader pauses for a closer look and is astonished at the ligaments and tensed tendon imperceptible beneath – this is the real business.
As regards the dust-jacket and the endorsements I eschewed in the name of direct access, it is no surprise to find now that a Sandra M. Gilbert compares his work to Eliot’s early poetry such as ‘Preludes’. Also no disagreement from me when a Geoffrey Wolf says the poems ‘consecrate a shadowed, alternate city of dreams and retrospection’ (but why ‘consecrate’?) and I agree with Lawrence Joseph that these poems are ‘ultimately poems of praise’. In the world of inflated extolling so often a feature of back-cover blurbs it is always satisfying to find, after you have read the book, that they confirm your opinions rather than contribute to them.
I realize that this review is somewhat self-defeating in the sense that, should you read it before you have read Stuart’s book you cannot follow its advice. But maybe next time you come across a complete stranger’s work you will venture into its jungles … alone?
About the author: Steve Dybeck’s books include I sailed with Magellan (FSG, 2003), The coast of Chicago (Picador, 2003), and a previous volume of poetry, Brass Knuckles. His writing has been frequently anthologized and has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Poetry, The Paris Review and Triquarterly. He has received several major awards, including a PEN/Malamud Prize and a Pushcart prize.