REVIEWS - by Sarah Hannah


Stephen Massimilla. Forty Floors from Yesterday. Bordighera Press, 2002

"Here comes/ a night as vast as America,/ traffic approaching through stars,/ flakes spinning back into cones/ of light." In his debut volume, Forty Floors from Yesterday (written in English and published in a dual-language edition with translation into Italian), Stephen Massimilla traces a journey. The book’s three individually titled sections unobtrusively suggest a narrative-"In the twilight of idols;" "I advance in absent weather;" and "From a far hotel"-a journey that begins in speculation (literal and figurative) and ends in retrospection. The remarkably visual poems in this collection range in landscape from country to city to netherworld, from the shores of Long Island to Mexico to "the halls of Osiris," and which find worthy of their attention subjects ranging from an office photocopier to a Morpho butterfly to Petrarch’s beloved Laura. And let’s not forget the tines of a rake.

These poems combine the quotidian with the extraordinary in unsettling and wholly convincing juxtapositions: "Our blizzard: one ghost rolling west or east?/ Behind, the flame of your window shivered" ("Departed"). And although Massimilla constantly reinvents the world visually, he is not content to remain in this sense alone. These poems celebrate the tactile and the aural, "this/ eye of night, this ever wound-up world,/ this wound without end, without wind" (Eye of the Cyclone"). Throughout this book, Massimilla explores the potential of words as not only signifiers but also units of sound. He demonstrates a remarkable control of forms-sonnet (he often favors a Petrarchan-
Shakespearean hybrid), villanelle, and terza rima (formidable in Italian, and, as T.S. Eliot could attest when he finished Four Quartets, even more difficult to manage in English), as well as blank and free verse.
The poems in Forty Floors from Yesterday admit and even relish an indebtedness to history and literatures of the past, as the frequent epigraphs and the title suggest. One can hear echoes of Stevens, Rilke, Wordsworth, and Bishop, among others (the positively chilling "blue" poems at the center of the volume remind one of Lawrence), but the voice of these poems is Massimilla’s own. "The blood itself has a way of muttering/ That the mouths of the dead are all one mouth" ("The Mouthless Dead"). Allusion, paradox, and sound device combine here to generate and
deepen meaning as the poems progress; note, for example, how an "organ groaning" in the "Parade of the Plagued" suggests both a sound and a certain attitude toward a sound, points out an anagram, and anticipates the image in the next line-the wounded figure bringing up the rear of the procession, "Christ, that bone man, dragging a banner of blood." It might be easy for a poet as technically skilled and as well-read as Massimilla to write poems that were sheer displays of his talents, but he never does this. One senses throughout the book that these poems had to be written; they mattered to the poet, and they matter to the reader.


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