Opulence by Stephen Ellis
(Theenk Books, Palmyra, N.Y., 2010)
Stephen Ellis has published numerous books, albeit mostly in various diy formats. Opulence itself first appeared as a fresh-from-the-library-printer edition, back in 2002. I have nothing but praise for the samizdat initiative, believing as I do that stupidhead cultural gatekeeping occurs relentlessly--take that, MLA programs!--but there's something to be said for making work available widely. Not that a small press like Theenk Books represents wide release, but at least it adds another outlet for the book. Opulence deserves notice.
One notices, first of all, a beautiful presentation. The cover and (bonus!) inside cover both display stark, realist paintings by Michael Merrill, one of some chairs and a folding table, the other of stairways in what looks like a modern art museum. These paintings fit the sense and sensibility of Stephen and his work. The book's format is 8x10 ¾, large but not outsized. To finish the stats, the book consists of52 14-line poems, one per page. Quotes, dedications, dates, and locations flesh out, if that's the right term, each page. More on that later.
Stephen calls these poems sonnets, but he's not counting iambs pentametrically. It's not to tweak Milton and the other affirmed bards of yore that he names the poems thus. I see him working within that tradition, for one thing. Besides, to recognize a form, however dispersed, asserts a practice and deliverance. As my wife says, art is creative problem-solving. To fit whatever into whatever form propels the imagination. The imagination is our working tool.
I see the influence of Charles Olson in Stephen's work. I am sure Stephen will accept the fact of that influence, tho he might cite other writers as well. I myself am much taken by Olson, and am heartened to see some use made of the crazy man from Gloucester's ideas. Can we say that Olson had a paleolithic politics? I mean the polis he wrote of derived from a history of darkness from which our genetics sprung. Stephen writes within that political unity. It is a writing of febrile impact, however coolly he states the positions.
Here is an entire poem from Opulence:
Lay Me Down in the Doorway
There are no symbols that aren't clothed to become thus guiding
qualities of identification between celestial and and earthly worlds whose
signification takes place as white Goddess adolescent ritual drum-drums
of attraction to the first and always Girl Next Door who tracks the meta-
physical status of spiritual continuum that flows through the timeless
correlation between the dense Qabballistic crown of flowers erupting from
the canopy of the catalpa grown out of the clavicular Eye in the (backyard) Heart
and the Milky Way that forms the rabbit-run into the glade out of which
emerges the Lightning Rod Man Doctor Faustus tried to trope out of he
hands of the selfsame human mind that perceived the first flash of
god life after circumcision completed the sympathetic Kundalini body
under image to Draco, where Christ rose on growth rings of perfect Dodonese
oak in order to maintain in the hollow core of the Argo the electrified
jawbone and kneecap of Agamemnon wrapped in the cape of his Real Wife
I intended to quote just a bit but can you find a stopping point in that self-propelling mass? I have referred to Stephen's style as run-on sentence, but I do not mean that pejoratively. Amy Clampitt has earned for herself the honour of being my bête noire, for her run-on sentences and proliferating commas, em dashes, colons, and, heaven forfend, semi colons. I find her ability to add pointless independent clauses to pointless dependent clauses an affirmation of sluggish poor writing. She just hangs listless 'poetic' images together in galled gallimaufry. If it looks like a poem, it must be a poem. Not!
With Stephen's work, thought persistently discharges provocation, language angles, and something new finds a way out. Creative problem solving! This is energy transfer, and a good thing. Clampitt seems to be stuck in mere simulation. That is called stones in the passway.
You will duly note the dash of references and allusions in Stephen's poem. These are wonderful intersections. Stephen's reading list is wide and pointed, much like Olson's was. He works within the world's necessities, not the garden of academic polish.
Stephen often adds nacreous quotes to his poems (albeit not to the one quoted above). I think this provides a rational context for his work. Poets, philosophers, critics, historians, and friends all appear above the poem in nuggets of input. After the poem, Stephen always addends where and when the poem was written. Living as peripatetically as he does, this practice seems to pin him down. Again, it situates the poem as an act and discovery.
The lesson I got from Olson, most of all, concerns the matter of poetry. That poetry arises out of science, and history, and politics: the human condition. It is not a rarefied adjunct to better ways of spending your time but a philosophic possibility and implement. Stephen, I think, in his registered political complex, would agree. At any rate, a ferocious political calculation propels his writing.
I will serve a nod towards Steve Till, whose Theenk Books produced this book. He's on his toes. I recommend this book as a positive program. It kicks out the jams. Those jams need kicking out.
Allen Bramhall was born by the banks of the Concord River in 1952 and has lived in Massachusetts ever since. He was educated at Franconia College and Lesley University, and in non-academic places as well. / Simple Theory / (Potes & Poets Press) was his first book. He maintains a blog called Tributary (http://tribute-airy.blogspot.com/), and a life with Beth and Erin. He is also the author of DAYS POEM, Vol. I and II (Meritage Press, St. Helena and San Francisco).