Epigraph

"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Review of Dust and Bread by Stephen Haven

*This review originally appeared in Indiana Review (31.1).

Stephen Haven. Dust and Bread. Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point, 2008. $17.00 paper (ISBN: 978-1932339024), 96 pages.

Reviewed by Luke Hankins


Stephen Haven’s Dust and Bread opens with an epigraph from Emily Dickinson’s poem #575: “An Awe if it should be like that / Upon the Ignorance steals—.” In this collection, Haven’s poems present ignorance as a pathway to awe. The tourist or visitor is the primary metaphor in the first section of the book, a metaphor which resonates throughout the collection as a way of thinking about all situations in which one feels dislocated, unknowledgeable, or inexperienced. And in a larger sense, the metaphor comes to address the fundamental human condition.

In “Blossom,” the speaker, an American visiting the Summer Palace in Beijing, wonders, “What can a tourist know? The past / is made of stone.” It is clear that we are being presented the humble tourist, one who acknowledges his limitations regarding a history and a culture other than his own. This is the model Haven would hold up for the reader as a paradigm for life in the broadest sense. Humility of this kind—a willingness to admit and accept ignorance—bears much resemblance to Keats’ idea of negative capability. This collection can be seen as an explicit exploration of what Keats described as a capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The first section of the book explores (presumably) Haven’s own experience as an American visiting Beijing, which is the setting for deep complexities and conflicts in his experience of the world. In Beijing, he both witnesses the birth of his child and meditates on the Tiananmen Square massacre, which some members of his wife’s family experienced firsthand. In “Ultrasound,” Haven addresses his daughter while she is still in the womb, as her mother sings at her family’s home:

Only one young uncle falls asleep,
his face gone purple with grief and baijiu,

his one son lost shoveling coal
at the Beijing Duck Hotel,
then biking home, after dark, past

Tiananmen, June 4th.
Anniversary of absences,
song of a night to be sad.

Someone recalls, now, on his birthday,
in prison, your mother’s father was given
one boiled goose egg.

[...]

[T]he moon refuses to show,
masked in clouds and the earth’s shadow,
its power magnified behind a shroud.

Begonias of violence, man-powered stars
burst their last cartwheels
in a long rumor of dawn.

This is not a situation that begets certainty, and it is only within his experience of a conflicted world, in which he must ultimately admit ignorance, that any certainty arises. Here is the birth of his son (Haven’s biographical statement says that he lives with his wife “and their many children”), a moment of revelation—but one which depends on accepting ignorance:

we knew right then just what we were,
knew it was religion,
its work, its aspiration,
the body broken, breaking,
the blood poured out
                                      eternity itself—
or something like it—
glinting in and out of view
in the double black-brown crystal,
the deep translucence
of a one-day old.


This is one of the purest moments of awe in the collection, and awe is only possible when revelation is offered to one who waits in an attitude of humility and ignorance.  


The collection moves through three additional sections, each, like the first, containing nine poems—a formal parallel to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, described in the first section as “a times table,” the floor of each level being made up of slabs in multiples of nine. Haven also flexes his formal muscle with a few poems in received form: a sestina, a couple poems in blank verse, and a villanelle. Haven moves seamlessly into and out of traditional form, and indeed, the sestina is one of the finest poems in the collection—a young boy’s account of a Catholic bishop’s three-day stay at his house during a snowstorm. The poem starts with a somewhat trepidatious tone, but then the bishop begins to seem like part of the household:
                    ...something uncommon was in our home,
where we dealt the Queen of Spades, dark cousin of the snow,
the Bishop in my father’s robe, his new maroon pontificals.
We hoped it would snow and snow, that he wouldn’t go away.

A sestina requires the repetition of the end-words of each line in each stanza, but in a masterstroke of craftsmanship, Haven drops the word “pontificals” from the next, penultimate stanza (substituting “ponderous, fickle,” no less!), because for the boy, the bishop is no longer a symbol of the church, but an actual person. The word “pontificals” returns in the final stanza, but only as “the shock of his pontificals” in the snow as he leaves the house—a shock not only because of color, but because the man has been dissociated from his church office in the boy’s mind. This poem wonderfully describes a child’s process of unlearning, of entering a state of blessed ignorance that allows him to see the Bishop as a person for the first time. Here, as throughout Haven’s collection, we see the paradox of ignorance serving as a vital kind of knowledge.

The book’s title comes from a wonderful poem, “Summer in a Large House,” from the last section. Here, a woman who thinks she hears ghosts at night is comforted by her husband:

he held her when she asked, pressed into her
the rote illusion of some distant mass,
the only prayer he knew, of love and dust
and bread, and she recited it after him
though neither one could say to what or whom.
And still it pulled, born of one breath
that bent above them the cypress’s silhouette
and drifting, drifting, unseen everywhere,
pitched forever, it seemed to them forever,
dark and near in the warped old eaves of the ear.

It is in the state of uncertainty, both acknowledged and confessed (“he held her when she asked”), that what might be called awe is possible—awe at finding oneself a part of something incomprehensible, unfathomable, about which one must admit ignorance, and awe at finding oneself with one—ultimately, with many—who are capable of sharing both the ignorance and the awe. Dust and Bread is clear evidence that Haven is learned in the ways of ignorance, and that ignorance itself has taught him an abundance of beautiful things, not the least of which being a receptivity to revelation and the awe that can attend it.  

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