KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
Torched Verse Ends by Steven D. Schroeder
(BlazeVOX [books], Buffalo, N.Y., 2009)
A class of readers exists who hates anything modern in poetry. They believe that poetry should be about the classic and the beautiful. They like rhyme and meter and orderly poems. Those readers will not like Steven D. Schroeder’s Torched Verse Ends. But many of the rest of us will fall in love with this book.
With the epigraphs for each section of this book, Schroeder lets the reader know what to expect. He quotes Charlie Brown, Homer Simpson, and Douglas Adams. Many of his poems similarly make use of elements from modern life: the personality/psychology tests that so many of us must endure on the job these days (“Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory 3”), statistics that batter us (“Sturgeon’s Law”) and our various night selves that leave us sick and/or starving (“Nightlight as Nightlife”).
Yet none of these poems is universally grim. Many are delightfully funny, in fact. I love the poem, “So You Want a Worker,” which shows the dehumanizing potential of the workplace with lines like “Do not bite your worker back” and “No, you may not buy another worker—you don’t pay the one you have,” and ends with the line “Do not flush your worker.” By using humor, Schroeder keeps us from sinking into profound despair while still forcing us to face the modern workplace.
Some poems help us look at the world through non-human eyes. “Robot Rhetoric” imagines the world as a robot would see it, and makes reference to various pop culture icons of robot mythology, such as this line: “We dream not of electric sheep or boogaloo, nor of soft tissue on titanium like crybaby cyborgs.” This poem resembles computer code (at least, the computer code that I wrote decades ago as I played with BASIC), an interesting experiment with form, albeit not traditional form. And like all good poems, this one gives us plenty to ponder, like this line that considers the takeover of the world by robots: “You shall become a vacuum cleaner.”
Schroeder also makes allusions to a variety of more traditional types of literature. “Fifteen Ways to Finish Fish” reminded me of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” “All the Better to Eat You With, My Dear” references fairy tales and their dark underside. In “Wear Your Hipwaders,” the Devil makes an appearance before mere mortals, but Schroeder has fun playing with this ancient plot device: “Last week, I caught the Devil fishing, by which I don’t mean I hooked and landed him on a nymph, but that he was practicing his ticktock cast into a hole on the Fryingpan River, and since it’s Lucifer himself, you have an into the fire joke.”
“Wear Your Hipwaders” is a prose poem, as are several of the poems in this book. But Schroeder’s poems do not conform to one particular form. Some poems have a strict stanza structure, with each stanza having the same amount of lines. Schroeder includes several list poems, but each one takes a different form. Even his index of selected subject matter seems like a cryptic poem (I’m assuming that it’s not a poem, since it isn’t included in the Table of Contents and it does seem to work as a true index).
I like the sense of play, both with linguistics and ideas, in these poems, and the fact that the playfulness supports the seriousness of the ideas, instead of undercutting them. I like that these poems tackle serious issues without succumbing to hopelessness. I like that they give my brain much to ponder. After reading these poems, I found myself mentally coming back to them again and again, as I made my way through my working day. But most of all, I like the way these poems inspire. I found these poems expanding the way I approach my own writing as a poet: their experimental, yet accessible, nature made me want to stretch out of my own comfort zones and play with words again, the way I did years ago when I was first starting to write poetry.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. In 2009, she was invited to read as part of the noon reading series at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Assistant Chair of the General Education department. Her website, which has connections to the blogs that she keeps, is www.kristinberkey-abbott.com.