by Stephen Massimilla
Stephen F. Austin State University Press (Texas A& M UP, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1622880072 / ISBN-13: 9781622880072
Distributed by Texas A&M University Consortium www. tamupress.com
This rich collection of poems, strikingly titled by author Stephen Massimilla, is not without tones of irony, fantasy and humor. Generally, one finds in the poet’s imagery—reflecting a professional painter’s eye for colorful, well-defined observations brought stirringly and skillfully to life with vivid details— apt rhythms that match the mood of the poem. There is recreation of the splendid aspects of nature, devoid of sentimentality: nature presented in the beauty of its stark and often surreal truths. The cover is adorned with a detailed painting by the poet who studied at the Chicago Institute of Art as well as at Columbia University where he received his doctorate in English and teaches classic and contemporary literature. Massimilla is a wide-raging scholar, with more credentials than one can mention here, and his learning is displayed in his poetry.
With his quick mind, painter’s eye, and wide learning, Massimilla imbues his poetry with insight and word play that often reaches the heart. In these expressionistic poems, mythical and literary characters abound. These include Vallejo, Raskolnikov, the Plague Doctor, Odysseus, little LuLu and Madame LaLa, unicorns, eels, and sirens all in “stylized chaos.” The verses conjure up detailed baroque scenes involving fantastical animals—sharks, bears, gulls, crocodiles, geese, tigers, octopi, death-carrying fleas—as well as human outsiders such as transients, prostitutes and plague victims. These characters wander amidst gothic cityscapes as well as breathtaking natural landscapes. All these scenes are delineated with learning and brilliance in distorted images reminiscent of paintings by the likes of Van Gogh or Picasso— if they’d painted “word images” in neon colors.
Among the nature poems that this reviewer appreciated best as ecologically responsible in our time of climate crisis and environmental devastation is “The Eel, Siren,” in which the eel appears “from the icy seas” and “shakes off the Baltic,/…plunging under an opposing/ pulse and into another intensity/ where life branches, artery to artery,/ vein to vein, rooting ever deeper into the heart/ of the rock….” The speaker turns to address the creature: “Eel, torchlight, whip, / Cupid's harrow in the earth/ which only our mud-cracked Pyrenean/ gutters can ditch-deliver/ to the paradise of fecundity;/ green fighting industry, probing/ for life where the Rubicon is pulled/ into a pillaged underworld;” Deep down, there is hope: “to make an end is to begin/ were everything is charred, ….” [p.35]
In a footnote to the poem, “Loosely after Montale,” the poet informs us that “Today, Svignano sul Rubicone is an industrial town; the Rubicon has become one of the most polluted and diminished rivers in Romagna, practically eliminated by the exploitation of groundwater.”
The reader feels Massimilla chooses just the correct descriptive words and rhythms to recreate scenes witnessed in the manmade as well as natural world. In “At Capri,” the speaker finds himself “In basil-blue morning lit inwardly/ by overlooked light….” where “Wings list in the wind past / the hydrofoil sluicing airy distance.” The speaker continues: “Like a wayfarer in porticoed light/ who espies the sheen of a nude// lying loose on vanilla pillows, I want to gaze/ with the reach of gulls feathering space/ over a peach-and-rose sunup glancing/ in cold mirrored shells of the Emerald Grotto….” Later, he is “Drifting down past the crusts of cliffs” amidst the “fresh breath of lemons, salt, and cypress wood…” [p.3.]
Stephen Massimilla is a multi-talented writer of wide-ranging knowledge, and he brings all his talents to bear on his poetry. His recent collection, The Plague Doctor in his Hull-Shaped Hat, published as a winning selection of the Stephen F. Austin State University Press Poetry Series competition, is as imaginatively weird and beautiful as its cover adorned with the poet’s painting. When Massimilla won the Bordighera Poetry Prize in 2002, distinguished poet and literary critic Dorothy Barresi of the University of California said: “The surreal imagery in these poems is crafted with a deft hand and a sure ear…. These are marvelous poems: Like fairy tales they conjure, bewitch, cast inescapable spells.” Though Massimilla’s poem require close and careful reading to capture their full effects, so dense are they with observational imagery, learning and visual description— one could not agree more with Barresi’s estimation. This is a book worth pondering reading and re-reading for the poetic richness within its pages.