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Rending the Familiar

By (May 1, 2013) No Comment

Ceiling of Sticks1

by Shane Book
Bison, 2010

Too long ago, a friend asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a book of poetry by a poet I’d never heard of. I agreed, as one does, but life intervened (as it does), and it took me quite a while to get back to what had become by this point an obligation.

So, when I finally turned my attention to Shane Book’s first collection of poems, Ceiling of Sticks, I cannot say that I approached it in the most generous frame of mind. That was an error on my part that Book’s evocative collection corrected immediately, and almost against my will. The obligatory back cover blurb tells us that the poems “carry us to Uganda, Ghana, Mali, Trinidad, and Canada’s west coast; from a religious sacrifice in Tarahumara, Mexico, to Book’s ailing grandfather’s bedside,” and this is indeed some of the book’s factual geography. But what is important about this collection is how the verse introduces us to the world as we thought we knew it, but then asks a lot more of our perceptions than it is our habit to commit. In other words, Ceiling of Sticks is important because of what it requires of its reader. Not only must we think about the poetry, we must also think about the world the poetry represents to us. Book’s gift for observation of the infinite nature of the world around us stays with you long after each time you have read the book. And you will read it more than once.

Ceiling of Sticks explores the world of safety, but even the safety of family and familiarity, for instance, is accompanied by threats of death and the dangers inherent in our day-to-day lives. For instance, “Shaving my grandfather in his hospital bed (1)”:

I plotch foam (crisp
autumn river small)
on his woolly ear sprigs
scree stubble any
longer it would puncture
my fingers as hanging sunfish
spines he taught me
to grasp another autumn
perched in his canoe
rolling my palm “mouth
to tail” down over
the slick cold gasping things

There is, it’s true, the Imagistic quality of William Carlos Williams in the one sentence, a photographic account of a moment in time, the aggressive freedom of the verse structure seeming almost familiar by now. This may be characterized as a criticism, although at some point we have to recognize how long people have been writing poetry. And words like “plotch” and “scree” (both words I had to look up, I’ll admit) have a tendency to draw one’s attention in the way that a poem like “Jabberwocky” (going back a ways) does. But the free-associative quality of the verse nevertheless points us in specific directions, too. The care and trust involved in shaving another person’s face combine with the woolliness of the grandfather’s ears to instill a clear sense of the grandfather’s helplessness. The memory of the lessons taught by the grandfather is bound up in the potential for mishap in the puncturing from sunfish spines and razor blade on an old man’s face. The past and the present work together to create an arresting and quite moving tableau.

When we return to the shaving of the grandfather’s face, in “Shaving my grandfather in his hospital bed (2),” something has changed. A sense of resolution and order descends over the longer second poem, as evidenced by the opening verse paragraph:

I dip the razor in water
cold as he showed me
In case there’s no hot
in the basement bathroom he’d made
where his wife refused to bathe
Like in a war?
because it had no tub he said
Like in a war?
because of the moldy dollar
bill smell she said

Here, the dialogue and occasional cause-and-effect explanatory tone allow the reader into the family’s life, if only a bit. This poem communicates more to the outside world, closing out the dangers of the past and replacing them with the imminent danger of losing the beloved old man who dominates so much of the speaker’s imagination. It ends with intimations of mortality, but also the resolution to complete the familial obligation:

Don’t tickle me
I don’t bleed

I bring the blade

While “I bring the blade” sounds more portentous here than it is, the tone reminds us of “Shaving my grandfather in his hospital bed (1),” and reintroduces the air of threat from that poem.

2One of the many aspects of this collection that impresses is its range. The poems extend from the personal and political to the esoterically technical. Not to put too fine a point on this, but how many “pantuns” have your read in your life? “Stark Room” is written in this Malay verse form (I had to look that up, too), in which the second and fourth lines of one verse paragraph repeat as the first and third of the next. There’s a little more to it, but you get the idea. It’s difficult, and it’s especially difficult to do it in such a way that it doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. The repetition of the lines creates a subtle imaginative rhythm that you become aware of even though you are not sure what it is exactly that you are noticing. It’s a like a magic trick, and it’s difficult not to admire, once you realize what’s happening.

The technical virtuosity of “Stark Room” and the intimacy of the “Shaving” poems do nothing to prepare you for the moment of anonymous horror described in “Mistakes,” which begins:

The nightstick hooks under my armpits.
Don’t fucking move, he yells again and yanks.
My chin grinds my chest, knees leave the ground
and then I’m pavement slammed. My mistake is
the cigarette. The way I walk. A smirk.
I should’ve dropped the smoke the moment flashing
red lights began to re-graffiti that
cinderblock wall. Before the gun led blue-
sleeved arms, face twisted pink, words corkscrewing
the night air: turn around, hands out slow, I
said slow
—from the car’s dark insides.

Where to begin? “Mistakes” could just ride along on the familiarity of this kind of anonymous, unprovoked insult. The cop’s face is “twisted pink,” informing us that he’s white and, perhaps more importantly, reminding us that the speaker (and Book) is black. But it is not enough just to give another rendition of the familiar. There is still art to be produced here, and that is what we get. The intense compression of the language emphasizes the intensity of the assault, as the speaker’s “chin grinds,” and is “pavement slammed.” Repetition is both employed and implied here in a way distinctly different from “Stark Room,” for instance, to create a clear picture of the poem’s setting. The cop says, “hands out slow, I said slow,” reinforcing that feeling of threat that accompanies such needless displays of force. He yells “again,” as the poems begins, telling us that we have arrived in the middle of this episode, since the cop has already yelled “Don’t fucking move” at least once. The red-lights “re-graffiti” the cinderblock, suggesting both a further unlawful marking of the terrain and, perhaps, implying the unlawful character of the police officer himself. The hooking of the nightstick under the armpits plays skillfully with hard consonant and short vowel sounds to pick up the pace right from the start, also picking up on the sounds from the title. The poetry is really great, even as the scene is terrible.

With all of this going on, “Mistakes” gets at the frustration at the heart of such encounters, a frustration centered in sheer arbitrariness.

My mistake is putting out a foot to stub
the cigarette, instead of kneeling right
away. I shouldn’t wear these colors. If
I’d just said nothing. I said nothing.

My mistake is walking
The streets at dusk. My mistake is locking
Eyes. Should have run. No I shouldn’t. He paused.

The speaker’s groping for some cause to explain the humiliating effect conveys the deep injustice at the heart of the vignette. These two brief passages reinstate the sense of Book’s talent for the telling use of repetition. Each of these passages works the same way, with the speaker searching for something he must have done to have brought on this assault. In both cases, he first seizes upon what must be the reason (“If I’d just said nothing.” And then, “Should have run”), but then immediately reconsiders. In the first, he doubts his own judgment, since he did what he thought he should (“I said nothing”). In the second, he registers with assured poetic economy how much worse this scene could have worked out, after he consider running—“No I shouldn’t.” The finality of the voice, the certainty, if only at this instance, makes clear that running was definitely not the way to play out this scene. This conclusion makes clear that at least now he lives to write a poem.

3But finally, as the speaker’s “tongue checks for loose teeth,” as the scene draws to its conclusion, and the cop “asks me what I’m doing here,” the speaker cannot answer. His last words, “It’s hard to breathe,” say that even answering the question may be a mistake. The question is not a question, but an accusation, since the scene has nothing to do with the gathering of information. The speaker just wants to stay alive, to keep breathing. As we reflect back over “Mistakes,” we realize that the plural in the title draws our attention, not only to the mistakes the speaker may or may not have made, but also to those of the cop.

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of a literary education is that, if you’re not careful, you can get to a point where very little surprises you in your reading. Everything new becomes another playing of the game “what does this remind me of?” And some of what you remember, or think you remember, may have you believing that poetry has few surprises for you anymore. Perhaps this is why I waited so long before I finally took on reviewing Ceiling of Sticks. However, Shane Book’s collection has produced in me the effect of being surprised by what I’ve read here. There is great optimism in this. The great irony, of course, is that a book I once couldn’t bring myself to read for review is now one that I can’t keep myself from returning to. How’s that for poetry?

Anthony Stewart teaches African American Literature and Culture, and has published essays on Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, and August Wilson, among other writers. He is currently working on a book on Everett’s fiction.