A collection like Ohio Violence is best consumed in small doses, so that its imaginative density, which is never ponderous, can be absorbed.
The Vassar Miller poetry prize people have a history of getting it right. The variety of excellence in this competition’s winners is the stuff of reviewers’ sweet dreams, and Ohio Violence by Alison Stine, the 2008 selection, is daring and wide-ranging . Controlled drama is an essential element in a first collection, and shaping strong feelings is often a struggle between passion and craft. Stine, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and the winner of a Ruth Lilly Prize, puts her studies and her interior fire to good use.
“Moon Lake Electric,” the fourth piece in this book, gets off to a compelling start with the title itself, an image that is kinetic, romantic and almost a stand-alone poem . “We know our way by stars and smell,” it begins, each word alive, in motion, and connected by a magnetic force-field. Stars have staggering amounts of energy, and when we see them we are often rightly awed. Using the word ‘’star’’ in a way that is not hackneyed is a challenge Stine successfully confronts. Every lake smells a little different after dark, in the same way that all senses are affected by kinds of vegetation, changing light and degrees of heat and cold. The poem’s details make a fine case for slow reading. Aloud.
every collar of the gray road, every shape
between the light switch and your corner
bed, iced in the dark. Such is the course
our bodies found, settling the hollows.
I taught you adaptive skills,
to watch for the eye spark of deer or dog
along the drive. On the outskirts, we are linked
by power, slick chords doubling
the horizon. A good marker, the sky—constant
but for the flash of birds, and they have chosen
to leave us. Or did we drive them away?
There’s more, and each line summons a welcome, utterly unforced thrum.
The title poem is an act of urgent preservation, with paradoxical , multifaceted storytelling .
dead deer in Ohio. “Deer Hit Special”—
the auto shop’s sign. In the grass are
various states. Head. No head.
Tail. No tail. Neat pile only of limbs.
I learned early to differentiate . This is
not a beast. This is past. This was once:
the buck my brother’s dog
brought up from the woods one summer,
trip by trip, a tipped hoof, leg joint. A tiny
dog, it could only carry what it could
carry. All summer, small burials.
By the last line Stine arrives at a fearlessly eloquent confrontation :
You want a picture. Break me open again.
To which, of course, anyone should respond, “ I will. Gratefully.”
A collection like this is best consumed in small doses, so that its imaginative density, which is never ponderous, can be absorbed. “Catalogue” is a fine example :
Everything reminds me of something else.
The last snow on the roof is a skirt,
an arm, a lip under teeth.
I tried to remember your scent as your own,
and not as peppermint left in a pocket.
There is something sinewy and universal at work in Ohio Violence and the restless bravery is nourishing and heartening, as in “White Fence,” and many other pieces:
Nothing, then the whitest wing, water moths of snow
which clung to trees until the trees thinned, half
in shadows, half gone, in this way like acid. This then
is your gift to me : distance, a white fence. Ask yourself,
Is this what you wanted? Go on. Ask me anything.
Stine may or may not have planned this to work in the many avenues it suggests. The unintended possibilities of the entire volume are part of what makes it so compelling.
Stine’s poems could have been even more successful had she relied a little less frequently, the title notwithstanding, on the word “blood,’ and on her use of “trees” as opposed to individual species. I have only spent three days in Ohio, and wish I’d spent more. I’m sure its woods are not populated by the salt-wizened scrub pines of my Jersey Shore youth or by the eucalyptus near my San Francisco home. If poetry is to make us more keenly aware of the world—and I believe it must—part of its task must also be to name with clarity, even when it obeys Emily Dickinson’s famous edict to tell the truth slant.
“Homer, Ohio,” is about a failing farm owned by two women. The scenes of the failure, on a single page, are welcome reminders of the necessity, in the best poetry, to be compact. A plow is for sale,
red with rain, labeled : As is. Women, I have seen
your sign. I am sick to death of making do. The one
I love turns from me all the while we sleep like trees,
and I know there is nothing to be born from this earth
but earth, and your scent, a gift that is turning.
What kinds of trees strikes me as a fair question, here and elsewhere.
Quibbles aside, Alison Stine is off to a robust start with Ohio Violence. This book bodes well for her future and for enthusiastic readers.