Somerville Poet Michael Todd Steffen will be reading from his new book at the Arts Armory in Somerville at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 26. Here is a review by guest columnist Denis Daly.
Partner, Orchard, Day Moon
By Michael Todd Steffen
Cervena Barva Press
Cover Art: Irene Koronas
Poetry needs concentration.Reading Michael Todd Steffen’s first collection of poems, Partner, Orchard, Day Moon, demands both presence of mind and a steady emotional containment. I kept putting the book down and looking behind me. Footfalls I thought. Perhaps murmurings. Or a pulse in the back of my neck.
Many of Steffen’s pieces conjure up small town and rural Americana: holidays, hunting, board games, table talk, hand-me-downs, views through kitchen windows, summer adventures, and, of course, baseball. Strangely, the atmospherics that saturate this collection suggest Igmar Bergman rather than Norman Rockwell. In the midst of measured well-wrought lines and enticing music, something wicked this way comes.
Right from the book’s first poem Steffen has a way of disorientating. In Christmas in August the poet sets up a juxtaposition of seasonal discomfort. The piece’s second person protagonist ascends a department store’s escalator in summer garb into a thinner, much colder mannequin world. To drive his image home the poet places a mirror beyond the escalator’s railing. The contrast tests reality. The poem opens this way:
Wandering lost through the department stores
You catch a glimpse of yourself in an odd
Mirror gliding over the escalator’s
Handrest—when the metal step slips forward
And you stumble, up walking around the mannequins
Clad for autumn in pullovers and cords.
Summer hasn’t ended.
The understated rhyme and metrics seem to effectively push a chilling definition of the ambiguous, later-mentioned ”bag people” front and center.
Moody silence pervades the intelligible, but demonic, chess game of life in one of the title poems (there are three) called The Partner. Curiously, Steffen drops the names of two iconic chess grandmasters into this context: Tigran Petrosian, noted for his remarkable, if interminable draws, and Gedeon Barcza, who played offense using a defensive strategy. The poem ends in Bergman-like fashion:
Thickening in the waking winter dark
And the checker’d go watery beneath the pieces—
Your knight in stirrups at the toe of his pawn.
You’d catch yourself up from a nod and swear
He had left the room. But he kept murmuring at you.
All the while he sat right there
Across the table, not saying a word.
Steffen’s sonnet Thanksgiving becomes a secular or possibly a quasi- religious rite of guilt and sacrifice in a hushed ceremony of food and family. Words such as “accused,” “wince,” “pain,” and “hushed” shadow the meal and, perhaps, foreshadow other troubles. The poem ends ambiguously. The poet says:
One creature went silent. He went on to live
And join the toast at the table with its ornaments
For the holiday, the straw weft cornucopia
Basket with squash and gourds and native corn,
Auburn of oat sheaf in the candle’s aura
Hushed for the dishes my aunt told us to pass
With sneaky dribs of red wine for my glass.
Another title poem, The Orchard, Steffen molds into a beautifully compressed piece that mulls over the phenomena of appearance and promise. His braille metaphor really hits the mark. Here are the first eight lines:
Trees stood all winter like cattle in the field
Naked of their leaves in wind and snow,
Their extremities advanced like blind men reading
Braille from the lines of wind that made them tremble.
To look at them for long you would remember
How superficial winter’s hardest freeze
Compared to their roots deep as the cemetery’s
Shelter where uncles seasoned herring stew.
My favorite Steffen poem, The Miracle Worker in Work Clothes, pushes through the fertile clods of page prophesizing the brutish theology of a barnyard universe. The piece is mythic and absolutely unforgettable. The nitty-gritty of creation accusingly grabs civilized man by his white-collared throat, and demands that he collect his illusions and step aside. The poet says:
With the creases of leather boots clumped in clay
The miracle worker
Has raised the dead at Saint Galen’s
While the family wept and praised the lord their god.
Like earth stunning
Winter back into spring, the miracle worker
Tensed, a body of sweat and breath, breast borne open
To the holy spirit
With great concentration pushing, pushing
The dead back into this life while men
Looking on stood dumb…
Hand Me Downs, a sonnet, begins as a meditation of family closeness and work ethic, evolves into the nature of memory, and ends lightly, yet troublingly, considering mankind’s shared condition. Steffen explains,
I was straw for style. Others were remembered.
Beyond their season things withstood a year
Stretched to casual, wear tear, raggedy,
Nearly familiar, for me or anybody.
The longest poem in this collection Steffen is entitled Ghost Man. Reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Steffen’s persona gathers about him a ghost companion, a dead man pursuing him in his imagination. One of a bunch of summertime kids, the poet’s protagonist had come face to face with the dead man, formerly a hanged man. Sickened by what he saw he ran away with his friends in search of adults. Later, the unresolved death of this ghost (suicide or homicide?) gives him power over the poet’s imagination. This indefatigable and hostile spirit blocks pathways and bridges and pursues the poet, threatening violence. He becomes the sum of all fears. The paranoia builds in these lines,
Some days later, he’s be there again
Barring my passage to the pathway bridge.
For hours after I’d given up and turned
Away from that crossing with its graceful camber
Over the river, he followed me
In silence, appearing behind a large stone
Or from a hedge or through a row of trees—
The knotted hunch over to one shoulder
For his abandoned judgment, the missing teeth
Sure sign that he had no fear and would eat anything
Steffen’s collection of poetry does not have the feel of a first book with its expected missteps and questionable choices. On the contrary its unmistakable artistry and mysterious combination of maturity and controlled paranoia belies that trite canard. There is real power, both mythic and otherwise, in Steffen’s word images delivered here. The bright future of this ghost-haunted, highly talented poet seems beyond question.
— Review by Dennis Daly