Santa Fe, MN: Magic Helicopter Press, 2015. 96 pages. $12.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Courtesy of Charles Olson, Jordan Stempleman’s Wallop begins with a telling epigraph, one that, in part, reads, “ . . . You’d be better off to listen to me. I mean, if I’m backward, I’m backward here, and the poetry will not disappoint you, ’cause it’s backward too.” That premise, then, provides an expectation of a sort, one that Stempleman tweaks and torques throughout the collection. If, according to Olson’s definition, “backward” poetry is the type that does not disappoint, Stempleman’s work in Wallop holds to that (re)definition. Simultaneously idiosyncratic and familiar, it transforms its reader’s perceptions subtly—but by the volume’s end, that transformation is nevertheless complete.
Taken from “Relationships,” a poem that appears early in the collection, the below stanzas indicate the extent of Stempleman’s authorial relationship to both vulnerability and shame:
Yoko Ono just put a photo online
of John Lennon’s blood splattered glasses.
I feel worse now for being three when he died.
I bet I was on the sofa when he was shot,
being as unfaithful or unreliable
as I am today, but without socks on. (14)
Implicated by something completely out of her control, the speaker of “Relationships” is repentant. But at the age of three are the concepts of faith and reliability actually accessible? And would not wearing socks truly make one feel inadequate or unworthy, especially in terms of an assassination impossible for the speaker of the poem to predict, let alone stop? Stempleman’s true gift in Wallop is teasing the line between genuine and accurate, two words that seem to have some proprietary relationship with one another but, in the end, might not actually have one at all. With its terse, occasionally unrepresentative titles—“Fixed,” “Denmark,” “Spent”—and incessantly provocative shadow play, Stempleman’s latest collection reminded me of this passage from W.H. Auden. It appears in Auden’s (in?)famous 1956 letter to Frank O’Hara vis-á-vis surrealism’s frequent use of illogic and John Ashbery’s poetry collection Some Trees, which Auden had recently selected for the Yale Younger Poets Prize:
I think you (and John too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any “surrealistic” style, namely of confusing the authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.
As many critics have noted, there’s no clear indication of the source of Auden’s disdain for surrealism. The difference between an “authentic non-logical relation” and an “accidental” one is thus less than obvious, and what’s authentic for one reader might read accidental to another. (In a similar manner, any “genuine” remembrance of a situation or incident might also be wholly inaccurate, of course.) Stempleman’s work, then, balances Auden’s statement on its head; “backward” in his poetics, he places a premium on neither the authentic nor the accidental, and, for his purposes, the causality of either sentiment is one and the same. It’s also worth noting that at the end of Wallop, in a long serial work entitled “Oh My God,” John Ashbery himself makes a name-checked appearance in the text—as does noted fictional Vietnam war hero John Rambo:
But just for a second, isn’t it neat
to think that if we can preserve
Rambo for 500 years,
he’ll have more scholarship
devoted to him
than John Ashbery has now?
Now where were we? . . . (76)
The conflation of John Rambo with John Ashbery is broadly indicative of Stempleman’s insouciance in Wallop. Further, 500 long years from now who’s to say if either Ashbery or Rambo will be remembered? One simply can’t be sure, and Stempleman wryly plays up that fact. Yet, as seen in the “Relationships” excerpt above, Wallop’s insouciance is frequently also paired with a disarming vulnerability. To wit, “Oh My God” ends poignantly, with a pared, fruitful nostalgia that indicates the speaker’s relationship with and devotion to unfettered remembrance:
In truth, it’s the last romantic
who sustains us.
The beginning of the Enlightenment
marked the end of the singing bone.
When a law broken
was to give us courage, but instead
we became more charming, slab down
the letter that drew me
to you . . .
This is our argent rebirth, the laziest
of sways, the lunatic
from the darkness
into the massed of our ideas.
And I know I’m unbetrayable
to the worst of me.
And for as long as I continue to be
as private as a war, I’ll single myself out
like this. Rephrasing
the added and the unloved
all over again. (78-79)
The emotions expressed at the end of “Oh My God” here are not insouciant nor, to my way of believing, backward either. Instead they plead for an innocence that cannot be catalogued or even satisfyingly expressed. “Rephrasing / the added and the unloved / all over again” the speaker laments a passage of time she was, in the moment, helpless to stop, but now, searching back, she is able to grieve. Life is one continuous “argent rebirth” and there’s an inherent vulnerability contained within that premise. But all we can do, in the end, is remember—and it’s via such remembrances that we allow ourselves to remain whole.
Compared with a random smattering of other twenty-first century American poets, Stempleman’s poetry isn’t particularly “backward;” indeed, Wallop isn’t a difficult book to read so much as a highly enjoyable and not-disappointing one. But the collection’s compelling mélange of images and disjunctions certainly linger in the reader’s mind after the collection’s final poem, and Stempleman’s linguistic obsessions are distinctly his own. As he writes towards the end “Responsibility,” the first poem in the volume, “And now I don’t know what to write, / which feels a lot like not knowing / what to say.” But not knowing what to write or say can, of course, be the impetus to figure out who one is and why they are that person exactly. Ignorance begets knowledge and, having declared what she doesn’t know, “Responsibility’s” speaker quickly asserts what she does:
What to say to my wife
when she looked up at me from the river
like someone who needed a hand. (1)
“[L]ike someone who needed a hand . . . ” It’s a bit sweaty and half-caked with dirt, but in Wallop, Stempleman provides that hand to his reader. And his poetic grip is both genuine and accurate.