Sunday, March 04, 2007

Review: Blonde Red Mustang

blond red Mustang... a gathering of small poems
Art Stein
Slate Roof: A Publishing Collective
15 Warwick Avenue
Northfield, MA 01360 USA
ISBN 0-9760643-2-4
$11.00 30 pps 9 x 6 inches

blond red mustang is an engaging set of short poems presented in a simple chapbook format. Light and serious verse in various forms such as haiku, senryu, tanka and free verse are arranged in thematic groups. Each has its merits.

The lighter poems are an agreeable diversion and make up a large portion of the book. Stein is particularly good at capturing the humanity of a moment with an apt turn of phrase; the following senryu are typical.

with great deliberation
she chooses
a fortune cookie

prepared for
my new garden
a woodchuck

His tanka are generally more serious. They are often what the Japanese would call ‘dry,’ which is to say, lacking an overt human presence. The following verse from the tanka sequence ‘Winter Beach’ is an example:

green margin
along the tide line
rope of rack
realigned daily
as the moon directs

This is an acute observation of the natural operations of the sea and its margins, a subject often celebrated in poetry, but usually with a romantic rather than an honest eye. As a poet of the water myself, I appreciate the accuracy of his vision, as well as the poetic quality of the scene. Yet this tanka can be read deeper, taken as a metaphor of the human existence (or at least the author’s existence).

The tanbun are also interesting and avoid the very common problem of simply using the prose to explain the poem or the poem to summarize the prose. At first glance there is no apparent relationship between the tanka and its prose, as in the ‘Babe Magnet,’ an observation of an elderly farmer’s charismatic influence on diner waitresses. The tanka that accompanies it is:

lifting off
the river shallows
slow wing beats
a great blue heron

The pairing of the great blue heron and the flirtatious old farmer grants a gravitas that satisfies the reader’s interest. Stein masterfully imbues the old farmer with a roguish dignity that leads us from bafflement to humor to admiration; both for the character and the poet’s skill.

Several of Stein’s longer poems are accompanied by envoys, usually in the form of haiku, but sometimes as tanka. Regrettably, these longer poems with their consciously poetic language fail to please. They contrast well with the starkness of their envoys, providing an interesting interplay between the two, but ultimately fail to satisfy. Nonetheless, the attempt heightens the interest of the poems and inspires a poet to try the technique for himself.

Stein’s greatest skill is the way in which he juxtaposes his subject matter within and without the poems. Similar poems are grouped together to seduce the reader into a particular frame of mind, but not so many that the reader becomes weary. They alternate with other poems that invite a different perspective and so refresh the reader’s attention and interest. The pacing is excellent, leading the reader through a journey on the micro-scale of the poems themselves and on the larger scale of the chapbook taken as a whole work. Would that more poets paid as much attention and did it so well as Stein.

Although not all the poems are to my taste, this chapbook is one I’m setting aside for further study because there is much to be learned and much to appreciate. The journeyman poet and the reader wanting something more complex than the usual pretty poetry books will each find something to reward their attention.


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