Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Cloud of Witnesses, Jason Stumpf --prose poetry

Reading Jason Stumpf's collection of prose poems from Quale Press requires you to set aside any preconceptions about what you are about to read.  Because this is a really weird book.  Weird in a good way...A delightful way!

First off, the thing that hits you as you begin is the random words thrown (skillfully) together in a strange mix that creates intense visual images.  In one, "An Evening's Entertainment", the picture is outlined with first a "brute pianist" who doesn't play the piano but bangs "his digits on the tusks".  Dead flowers, distracted twins, and a old portrait fill the scene.  The choice of words (tusks instead of keys, for example) instills a sense of violence in what others might portray as a simple image of a guy and a piano.  It's almost like solving a puzzle, as you notice what words Stumpf chose in view of what might have been more typical.

"Dinner-Time" is a word play that is both comic at first but ending with an ominous tension...only the last word reveals that a 'secret' is threaded within the previous paragraph.  So it snaps you back into wondering, what was the secret? 

The most critical part of the book is the End-Matter...surely they could have been moved to be the First-Notes, however.  Because reading those helps get a sense of the depth of each piece...I wish I had seen them earlier instead of later.  Stumpf calls on Scripture, Rothko paintings, classic poets such as Shelley, Neruda, and Keats, and novelists such as Joyce, Hardy and Beckett for inspiration. 

The End-Matter helped me better understand "Re-Tailing a Lion" because it explains that each word is found in Keats "Ode to a Grecian Urn", although this new telling has a different perspective than Keats' memorial vision. 

My favorite of the collection is "Fronts", about a man not healthy enough to go to war in 1944, yet well enough to suddenly become a popular choice for a companion for the town's women since the men are gone.  "Transmissions from a sinking ship, he once remarked, sound something like a waltz."  And then the Morse code follows the paragraph (SOS, I think!)...underscoring the element of a silver lining for this frail man.  The bitter loss of others ironically heightens his status.

Lastly, "MCMXLIII" explains the swaying confusion of a man reading the Bible over the course of a year, with an appropriate theme of a water voyage.  "From Adam to the epistles, male to mail, he read, and in dreams that year saw a flotilla of begats sailing near.  He took comfort in how, like reeds, even kings sometimes lied down, broken in the sea." 

The collection is in no way typical and requires more than a casual reading to enjoy it best.  I read it rather slowly, just one a day, to try and visualize the images he makes instead of rushing through them.  Focusing on word choices and their impact (instead of a tamer or more typical synonym) gives the reader a visceral response that sometimes is surprising.

Special thanks to Gian Lombardo of Quale Press for the Advance Review Copy.

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