Saturday, April 17, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Gifts and Thefts by David Staudt

REVIEW By Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Fall-Winter 2003-04

David Staudt’s The Gifts and Thefts, 2001 The Backwaters Press, 3502 N 52nd St., Omaha, NE 68104-3506, Tel. 402-451-4052. 102pp.

David Staudt’s prize-winning collection is divided into five sections each marked by a large asterisk styled as a compass-rose. The first section describes the early years and his entangled memories of them. He recalls visiting his mother in a hospital:

A woman that light and that long in bed
becomes less body than relief:
a woman of wood in raised relief

He daydreams of adventure watching bed sheets “blow and lift on their lines”. They become “Wet white sails of the Niña, the Pinta”. Mom pulls the “clothespins apart/ with her teeth, a sailor on a rolling deck,/ rigging her family’s bedclothes”. In Souls, the old nun teaching the lives of saints is more afraid of binomials than of the school hoods. During the first snow, she takes the kindergarten class out to a “fenced-in/ playground no bigger than a carport” telling them to “Pretend you are the top of a mountain”. As they stare upward, they feel

“dizziness when snowflakes stop mid-air,
and the body starts falling into sky.
Then she tells the children how their souls
will feel, returning to heaven.

Other poems in this section speak of the poet’s father, neighbors, local dogs, his asthma: “…sliding into bed he’d start to drown,/ rousing to the weary little music/ raled through the pipes of his bronchi”. He describes his work on area farms and orchards and his fascination with the factories whose fiery lights and controlled chaos he tried to photograph. He revels in the local color of ethnic superstitions and ever-present ancestral ghosts: “Those whitetail doe in the street/tonight, who’s to say it isn’t/Emmy and Jenny, pausing then/wheeling in our parking light’s glow…”

The next section deals with nature and here we find some of the most ethereal and even metaphysical works in this volume. This is from Red Sumac:

I find a Shiloh in oak woods
a peace place razed by riversilt…
the pale trees halftwist northward,
tuned to the light from Polaris

But the natural context is set within and captured by the markers of civilization which counterpoise it. Here’s Staudt’s “jar in Tennessee”.

…as if all geography turned
around a hillside south of Vestal,
where the feedcorn sags through a post
rail fence, the rails have not moved
for fifty years, and a puzzled
hawk drifts to a stop in the sky
without a draft to tend her either way.

These images strike like lightning flashes. “A celery salt of rust and powdered moth/parts glitters in the cattails…” And they just keep coming: “…the lights snap on,/triggered by the smallest shift to red/in amber weeds along a drainage ditch.”

…mugwort and chicory crack
our roads, creeks dry up in garlic
and even cornstalk’s rebel cobs
sprout purple kernels.

These poems have the uncanny power to make me long for a lost farm-country world I have never experienced. “On Fall Creek herons/ lift their oars and pull hard overhead/ for deeper water.” Bear in mind, I’m just skimming the foam at the crests of these waves. For an example of a natural portrait whose precision and clarity approaches perfection, I would point to Little Brown Bat. A modest subject but then, so

was To a Mouse. The poem’s unity and coherence are so remarkable I refuse to diminish it by tearing out some lines. It’s a work of genius. Let it stand.

The next section gives us some fine portraits of women, never abstractly romantic, but real, solid women in their actual surroundings. In Trick we have:
The winter’s last thunderstorm
pummels south Los Angeles.
All the car alarms trip off:
a passing front, a crime burst.

…Your moist, salt weight
pins me with regret.

There’s strong sexuality in this group. As from Cold:

Touching her, he wonders how she
can bear the heat of her own breasts.
…Even her dress, hung over the chair,
could keep his bedroom warm for days.

On an amusement park ride with a teenage girl he realizes that shared thrills can lead to uninvited passion: the girl’s mother, anxiously watching, “knows the hardest most fugitive loves/ are born in a moment of amusement.”
From White Acre: “In Pusan I’ll pay a Korean girl/ what she asks for her hips, her limp back,/ the couple of filthy words she thinks/ all servicemen adore.”

In the section simply entitled: Two, there are poems reflecting the author’s experiences during his eight-year stint in the Navy as sailor and submariner. In Deep Depths, the poet conflates an accident at sea with the feared image of his father seen in childhood. From Running Ultra Quiet, we have:

I sat outboard the turbines on midwatch,
The whole crew asleep,
The boat like a man dreaming,
Under black tons.

In the last two sections, Staudt returns to familiar themes

introduced earlier: rural and farmland life; tin-shack townships in America’s back-mountain country; snowy winters; couples fighting in shiny Chryslers; hopeless wives; the boredom of dogs; the agony of hooked fish; family tragedy; tragic people; old time religion; spiritual isolation. All of it ending with the mother’s death.

…we’ve fed the wild geese at home
from our hands, those durable engines
of continental flight…
Late tonight, your heart will batter itself
to pieces trying to fly out with them.

For twenty
more nights we would watch the procession
of sine waves roll across her monitor,
those ardent crests…
crumbling and deforming in the darkness,
as an ocean of silent disappointments
threw its lasts waves down in protest.

These are passionate and powerful poems that drag the bloody organs out of life’s body displaying the love, the cruelty and everything in-between. These are profound works but don’t search them for blue heavens. They stand in the midst of those somber witnesses that see the world as it is and tell it so:

Mounting our empty beds at night we heard
the dirt already raining on the rooftop.

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