Review by Mary Sayler
DUST AND BREAD
by Stephen Haven
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, Ohio 45254-1106
2008, 100 pp., $17.00
Conventional wisdom in reading and writing contemporary poetry consistently encourages us to enter into the experience of a poem, so that’s what I aimed to do in reading Dust and Bread, the latest book of poetry by Stephen Haven, which drew me on several levels. For one thing, his familiarity with life in China appealed to me greatly since the closest I’ve come is once naming a beige Chow puppy “Beijing.” Also, he’s an Ohio man, whereas I’m a lifelong Southerner who’s resistant to being belled. More importantly, he teaches a MFA program, while I’m a self-taught student who began studying and writing poems as a child.
Duly drawn by an exotic culture and the poet’s impressive credentials, I came to this book, wanting to be taught, wanting to learn, and, especially, wanting to experience the poems. Neither the often-exquisite lines nor my reading disappointed me, but—oh, I’d better get it over with—my experience of Dust and Bread occasionally made me feel, well, annoyed. To be specific, those annoying elements included the title, an out-of-context line, and a couple of words to which I objected.
To start with the title: Reading through lenses well-grounded in Holy Scripture, I could not help but see the biblical connotations rising from the Dust and Bread. In the pre-Christian era, for instance, repentant people sometimes showed remorse by covering themselves in dust and ashes, while, by contrast, the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in the New Testament requests daily forgiveness and daily bread. So, right away, I began to wonder who would forgive whom and for what and why.
In addition to Eucharist or communion where church members receive bread as the representation, reminder, or actual presence of the body of Christ, inherent with forgiveness, the biblical expression of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” refers to brevity of life. On a secular or physical level, dust occurs daily and just is. Similarly bread represents the daily sustenance needed to live, calling to mind our bodies’ need of bread and water to survive. So what do these contrasts between life and death, between the secular and the religious, between well-crafted, often gorgeous lines, and a mundane title have to do with this book? Frankly, my dear, I’m not sure.
Until you experience these poems yourself, however, everything I say may seem abstract, so let’s look at one of my favorite pieces, “Willow.” This book-opening poem begins, “All China a green-gold row of them./ When you walk through – / delicate, skirted, light-limbed/ and yellow, swishing their loveliness/ in the wind – they brush the whole of you.” I’ve now read those lines many times and each time truly experienced the grace of that moment and musicality of that scene where “one single tree” becomes “the parasol of thousands.” Although the next line adds “of years of poetry,” I preferred the initially-evoked image of people, who could be from any willow-friendly place or culture, experiencing the passage of time under that exquisite parasol.
That apt word and many other fitting descriptions aid the beauty of this book, even when it’s not a pretty sight. For instance, “Skunked” offers a clear picture and dry wit in the second verse: “But how strange to carry, on your body,/ a small piece of the highway,/ white-split blacktop/ signaling the world to pass.” How quietly clever and just right! Similarly, there’s the just right observation of the unborn child in “Ultrasound” as “Your mother sings, not exactly to you” and how the soon-to-be-parents “looked in to see, five months early,/ you, floating in your beginning./ The peninsular pieces of yourself.” Anyone who has had the joy of viewing a similar picture via ultrasound knows the rightness of that description and even the look somewhat like “The dry black husks of watermelon seeds” scattered on a “slab floor.” No matter how poetic and descriptive though, those seeds seemed to be disembodied from the historical diversion of the “one boiled goose egg” in the previous verse and the moon refusing to show itself in the verse after, thus evoking my second experience of annoyance.
It’s as though the popularly poetic intent of high compression had squeezed the words into something mystifying, rather than mysterious, which mainly annoyed me because I truly wanted to know more. For instance, I really wanted to hear “another echo too,/ some silence stuffed/ down your mother’s throat.” Since the poem is dedicated “To my daughter, five months before her birth” in China, one might presume the silence to regard the coming of a girl-child, who, reportedly, would not be welcomed in that country at that time, but the collage of past, present, and future images collides, making it difficult to separate what from what.
One of the more accessible poems, “Waxing,” raises questions, too, when “seeds are for swallowing” and “when no one leaf formally finishes itself,” but I found this poem enticing, unified, and not at all annoying. Indeed, the brevity, beauty, and believability of the poem drew me to read the lovely lines aloud several times, each time experiencing the pleasure of interesting thoughts and credible imagery, for instance in the ending where “The moon exists from all sides at once:/ Blind eye, sinkhole, searchlight.”
Similarly, I read “Blue Flame” again and again, each time being let into the poem by the clarity of the opening scene until jolted into my third experience of annoyance. The line, “I know we live under the light touch/ of heaven’s scam” lost me with the word “scam.” Yes, I admit that, as a person of faith, I found the word wobbling toward the offensive, but that wasn’t my problem. As do people in general, poets have the right to believe whatever they want. They do not, however, have the right to charm me into entering an early morning scene between a father and son as they leisurely begin their day only to throw a scam on the table with the oatmeal. The abrupt change of mood and tone gave me a whiplash and broke the sweet mood, which the poem then resumes in the next verse as “The day comes soft shoeing,/ all doe-eyed, the womb’s wonder/ of the sky.”
My complaint about that poem continues in the final annoyance experienced in the word “conjugates,” when, again, the mood, tone, and, now, imagery reel from the adverse effect of a clever, showy word choice over a quieter one that would cooperate nicely with the line. i.e., “Somewhere,/ half a day and half the world away,/ the red flag of morning snaps/ at half-mast above our own/ holy fire as it conjugates itself/ across a cross-less altar.” But, having expressed my negative reaction, which I cannot take back without altering the actual experience, I’ll now turn to the response that comes from looking up an odd word or, seemingly, out-of-context word a poet selects. In this case, conjugation as “a class of verbs with similar inflectional forms” comes last in Webster’s, even though its connotations may continue to rank first for readers in general. Regardless, the word used is, in fact, conjugate not conjugation, and in this, the poet selected a word meaning to couple, yoke, or join, which immediately makes a connection between the world in America and the one left behind in China and between a Christian and a non-Christian environment too. Again, though, my objection is not based on religion and the rights thereof, but on the strain to treat perpendicular lines as parallel, especially if those lines intersect in the child in the room.
Despite the “scam,” I will not keep holding this poem over the “Blue Flame” since a dictionary reminder of true meaning and a little more information in the remaining lines doused my annoyance. For instance, the poems gets on with life and the day as “everything slips/ to its opposite. Cold burns.” Yes! And I can attest to this today on an unusually frigid morning in Florida as the temperature rises in the 20’s.
Also, as I write, a New Year has just begun with resolutions to slow down, write more poems, and experience each day more fully. “Blue Flame” touches on this, too, as “The morning’s hot celestial wax/ drips into the seal of our/ rushed footprints.” Like most of the poems in this book, that one makes me want to know what else the poet has to say and how well readers will conjugate the experience. If the veil lifts from the lines and the dust begins to settle, I suspect the poetry of Stephen Haven will be received as bread and experienced with the warmth of a blue flame at home and in Pulitzer circles.
Mary Harwell Sayler, a freelance writer and poet, began judging poems entered in the annual writing competition sponsored by www.writers-editors.com in 1999, but she’s worked with other poets and writers much longer than that, first through her home study course and now critiques and the website she recently revised, www.poetryofcourse.com.