I don’t think I ever laughed with a poem. Sometimes I chuckle at a clever turn of phrase, or at a shared sentiment, or a little idiosyncrasy that I thought all my own, and though I laughed at that dirty limerick my friend wrote in fifth grade, I can still say Leigh Stein’s poetry actually elicited the kind of laughter that hurt my belly and made me want to say, “Leigh, stop, I can’t take anymore, but don’t really because, WOW!” Her debut full length book of poetry, Dispatch From the Future, announces a startlingly developed and fearless voice. For Stein, everything acts as a prod to poetry from the machinations of love to the ambivalence of a dating profile. Her style, both vigorously colloquial and yet highly aphoristic weaves the different strands of life into a singular idiosyncratic vision of the world. Like all perceptive people of our generation she sees both the absurdity and beauty of our world obsessed with art and culture to the extent that our collective memory is no longer our national history but our national entertainments and cultural consumption.
From a smorgasbord of intelligent humor to choose from I keep returning to the second poem, “Based On a Book Of the Same Title.” Stein writes:
By definition of vicious infinite regression
I don’t like to talk to philosophy majors
They have the truth and the truth is
that there isn’t one, so on Saturdays they
wear overalls and stare at their reflections
and try to guess whose childhood was worse
These two opening stanzas show Stein in the range of her depth and breadth. She begins with what appears as a poetically altered use of the philosophy term infinite regression, but in fact, Stein here cleverly shows the frequent poetic nature of even the driest logic terms. Vicious infinite regression defines a certain type of infinite regression. As is her wont though, Stein takes material from her world around and uses it for her own art. Its insertion into the poem allows the more abstract philosophical term to take on a more human weight. From there she launches into her style of long sentences displaying her perfection of the craft of enjambments. Her enjambments provide much of the humor and depth as they take what sounds like a weighty serious sentence and finish it with a more joking punchline as in the image of philosophy majors sitting around pretending to discuss the essential issues of the world but really guessing who can claim the crown of suffering.
Her prodigious knowledge of the arcana of pop culture somewhat requires that you
read this book with your Wikipedia app by your side, but Stein will never let you down. I now know the most prolific author of the choose your own adventure series (R.A. Montgomery), that Rattawut Lapcharoensap is not a symbol or a clever way of saying anything, but a real person, and that epistolaphobia is a world made up by Edna St. Vincent Millay to describe her fear of writing letters. She essentially asks the questions, what do or can we do with all of this Total Noise, this onslaught of information of which we receive too much of.
With the help of Wiki and my because of my own obsession with culture, I discerned
many of the less explicit allusions: Choose your own Adventure series, numerous references to Greek mythology, Czech operas, Slavic mythology, the Little Mermaid, Seinfeld, Dating websites, Judy Blume, The Oregon Trail (The Computer Game), Risky Business, the myth of Isis and Osiris, He Man, The Diary of Anne Frank, Spielberg’s cult comedy 1941, and the last recorded found fossil of a female aurochs now in Switzerland, and all of this just an incomplete list that does not include her explicit references to other books, or movies or TV shows – (Ayn Rand, Miss Universe Pageant, Facebook, Leaves of Grass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and an acoustic cover of the popular Outkast Song, Hey Ya, by Matt Weddle, for starters.) On top of the plethora of allusions, Stein’s embrace of jokes with a set up and punch line, bordering on comedic sketches, along with snatches of everyday dialogue torn from their context creates a poetry for poetry lovers and haters at the same time. It retains the density of classic poetry with the fluidity of prose. And yet, with all of her emphasis on the here and the now, the immediate details of reality regardless of their stature, she balances this out with a heavy reliance on her fascinating imagination. She will often reimagine or provide both commentary and different twists to old myths. Never content in mere mimicry Stein embodies these stories with new life. Anne Frank posts her life to YouTube, a jealous girlfriend wishes herself more self control than the mythic Rosalka, the operatic inspiration for the Little Mermaid, and she riffs on the plot of Risky Business all with ease.
Her purposive use of esoteric pop culture along with the bastions of digital society speaks to something in of itself regardless of its specific use in the poems. It serves as statement of intentions, a manifesto of sorts, poems as instructional for what poetry can do. In a way, this is both ambitious and ostentatious without the negative connotations. It shows itself off as different so as to claim territory for poetry, territory we once upon a time might have called “low-brow” but that now we call the mundane. When we speak of this beauty of the mundane we often conflate different categories within this umbrella concept. The modernists, such as Proust, Joyce and Woolf, embraced the mundanities of life, but did so for specific purposes. Proust catalogued the most nitty gritty fleeting details of society partially to capture the scene, tone in a sense of realism, and partially because anything and everything could launch Proust into the realm of meaning. He reveals the tiniest idiosyncratic detail to contain all the secrets of the world.
Post-Modernist writers focused on many of similar topics, but usually with different
intentions. The pure and early postmodern writers uses the topic to explore the idea that we can separate between high and low brow at all. These new realms also allowed these writers to explore areas of culture generally denied a right of entry into literature, but again, in order to take apart these constructions we create for society and value. To the extent that this porous categorization holds true, David Foster Wallace acted more as a modernist than a postmodernist writer. He looked into a state fair, a cruise, a porn awards weekend, poorly written sports autobiographies with a second writer, and of course, tennis and saw the heartbeat of the world.
In a sense, this fails to satisfy the idea of the beauty of the mundane because in the end these authors turn the mundane into the meaningful, the rare, the stunning, the all purposive, something essential. A true beauty of the mundane we not need to justify itself with a reach upwards. It suffices in its own gracefulness. With some qualifications, Stein’s poetry revels in this type of artistry as well as in the playfulness and scope of her imagination. She speaks poetry that speaks, uniquely, to our time. (Banksy sits next to Jeremiah, after the destruction of the Jewish temple and gives him an idea for a tattoo based on a Banksy quote: As soon as you meet someone you know the reason you will leave them. ) Her poems serve as puzzles to piece together, riddles to solve, beauty to appreciate, jokes to laugh at, and of course, sadness to empathize with.
In the end, regardless of her stance on the nature or direction of poetry, I want to
console Ms. Stein. A deep and perceptive sadness permeates all of her poetry, even the playful. She feels the enormity of life as a shadow of our powers of imagination. We can dream and imagine the most beautiful situations, give the flesh and spirit through our poetry, but life too often appears to let us down. However, her use and commentary on imagination highlights both the redemptive and destructive relationship our fancy flights and the gritty realia of life. At the same time that imagination can console a person shattered by heartbreak, it can undermine the shininess of reality, or create a world to escape through thereby avoiding problems or inflating reality to melodramatic proportions. Our pains feel mythic when seen through a more realistic sense they might seem trifling, petty, and almost laughable.
After reading this book, I wanted to tell her that all her fantasies can come true. Tell her that some men out there are plain awesome. I want to tell her that people love people not just for their beauty but for their prodigious imagination, that all of us, or many of us, perhaps the best of us worry about the future, about whether we can handle the vicissitudes of parenthood, about fame, that most of us will not drop our children, or disfigure them emotionally anymore than our parents did to us, that sometimes we think about Lindsay Lohan too much too, that we all feel and think of dating sites the way she does: a necessary evil like dentistry, that sometimes we too, perhaps as a guilty pleasure, perhaps out of a naive sense of hope, read self-help books about self-actualization, about finding “el uno”, that sometimes we hide in books or in the past, or in the future, or that we all use facebook for shady endeavors. I want to tell her all of this but I imagine, brilliant as she is, she knows this better than I do. She writes with a young insouciance proper to her age, and yet, with the weight of wisdom of life lived. What then can I possibly say to her? In fact, like the best poetry I felt comforted by her, by her empathy for both the playfulness and sadness in life.