May 24, 2012

Garon Scott Reviews Heidy Steidylmayer's Fowling Piece

In Fowling Piece, Heidy Steidlmayer’s first collection of poems, the poet registers the spiritual aches that feed desire, and often finds their reflections in nature, driving the poems forward with end and cross rhyme, stringing them together by a more traditional (though carefully imperfect) meter. In “Couples,” for example, she too looks to nature and romance’s emptiness:

ask me if my emptiness equals all
your clothes, if the light shows
through your thinnest shirt
to hurt, or if the wind blows
your darks from the line by design

Through poems on protozoa, saints, and hospitals, her idiom is unflaggingly buoyant. A patched-over, palsied eye reveals “the mind in its weedy prominence.” A Chinese mantid wilts “deep in his ester of acetic acid.” The book’s final poem, “Charybdis,” opens “I am the crepe de chine of Paris green, rauwolfia, and atropine.”

The book’s first third is its most pliant. Evidenced by titles like “Heartbreak,” “Couples,” “Taxonomy of Grief,” and “Agonal,” the dominant mood is, well, heartbreak, grief, and agony, especially that of couples. There are, however, portents of matters to come—two poems that struggle with institutional religion, a poem about an orrery (“Sad amplitudes of clocky junk/crank moons and tiny globes of granite”) and an interest in prophecy and the supernatural throughout.

In the book’s second section, Steidlymayer’s voice is less urgent as she considers three routes to the unknown: Christianity, Greek mythology, and science. Her technical play and diction is less surprising here; her themes either buried or too dominant. The Christian poems are split between dissent against religion’s ritualistic, human-controlled side, and impersonal poems of Biblical stories, miracles, and the cults than surround them, like Naple’s thrice-yearly sensation, the liquefying blood of Saint Januarius. Science, it seems, in all its strangeness, catalyzes the poet’s language-impulse in exciting ways. She is determined to present this world in its own argot—Lepidoptera, not butterflies, entomology, not insects, elytra, animalcules, ootheca, cirri. Sometimes, the technical language works, but the twitch of misunderstanding and the impulse to run to a dictionary often deflate the experience of the poems.

Paradoxically, it is with a more distant subject that the poet finds her most personal, moving voice. Her poems of Greek mythology—as she inhabits the voice of Charon and Callisto, Scylla and Charybdis—are so effective because the act of speaking feels imperative. These are voices of impulse, irresistible, vital. Speaking of Zeus, Callisto asks,

Cynosure of all
eyes, did he
rise in a hood of bees

and throw off

his otherness?

The imperative to speak, and the unornamented weight it produces, carries from Steidlmayer’s Greek poems to the book’s final section, in which we discover the reason, or perhaps the culmination, of her restless spiritual searching—a brain tumor. Like another book recently reviewed by Weave—Christian Wiman’s Every Riven ThingFowling Piece confronts the surreal world of the hospital—the ubiquitous white, the masked faces, the screaming stranger in the next bed over—while attempting to make sense of death and self. Here, Steidlmayer is at her most brilliant. Her images are exact and necessary, no longer simply enjoyable flights of language, but the inescapable products of her topics. Where Wiman progresses from horror to spiritual serenity, Steidlmayer, as though under an analgesic haze, registers dreamlike visions in floating, punctuation-free lines:
the anesthesiologist, her faded countenance
as far away as a giant

my husband beside the bed, his face
as if I had just fallen from one of his branches

In a poetic world that, for better or worse, values idea over execution, Fowling Piece is a remarkable testament to the potential of technique, and is all the more so for being a first book. Steidlmayer uses—and is not used by—devices such as meter and rhyme, and though very few poems in the book could be called formal, the influence of formality is felt throughout. She handles line breaks masterfully because she lacks allegiance to form, and yet her most memorable lines are often weighted by their metric regularity. Moreover, the book’s passion for the unknown, for our pains to know and make claim on meaning, is admirably broad and honest, and its resolution—with poems of motherhood, creation, nature, and myth—is one of not certainty but hope. Her imperative in “Poverty,” one of the book’s earlier poems, may as well be to herself:

let the sun beat
down its fat old heart
bring another day to its knees

there is nothing left
to carry but your voice.

Reviewed by Garon Scott

Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidylmayer
TriQuarterly, 2012

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