On Steve Scafidi
Steve Scafidi is the author of two impressive collections, Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer and For Love of Common Words, both in the Southern Messenger series from LSU Press. When I tell you he is a poet of impressive reach and Elizabethan exuberance, you may take me at my word. Imaginatively adroit, formally outfitted without necessarily being formally complex, his work inhabits a large cognitive and imagistic space where ostensible subjectssnakes and weasels, a burning truck, the spruce front of a violingrow into emanations or strands of implication. Or they are intimations of something seeming to come into view, but remaining just beyond the reach of articulation. He does this with exceptional self-possession, often with a sense of bravado and vivid pursuit. At the same time, his poems are written under the sign of formalism, and the formal strictures at work here serve to curb the self-delight of linguistic talent so that the sheer ability to be poetic doesn't run away with the show. The tendency is to hyperventilate, and Scafidi is aware of the temptation. There is throughout a Shakespearean "merry war" between the poet's intention to feature content and the controlled exuberance with which the content is revealed.
Since the 1970s, American poets have seemed to be of two minds about whether it is possible to articulate the "ineffable"if indeed there is anything to articulate. On the face of it, if something is beyond speech, it is beyond the grasp of language. Might language be instrumental in another way than grasping? That's the traditional hope of poetry, and maintaining a faith in a poem's instrumental ability as it approaches the limits of language makes one the poetic equivalent of an Old Believer. This is where Scafidi comes in.
His poems not only go after (or find themselves within the precincts of) that elusive "ineffable" that is the bane and glory of lyric poetry, but they do so with the implication that it can be donei.e., that there is something about which our language (our poetry) is interested in acquiring and that poetry is the means to bring its elusive meaning about. Scafidi's poems suggest a belief in those twinned premises. I am reminded of Wittgenstein (as I often am), who first thoughtrather too famouslythat the "the limits of our language are the limits of our world" but later came to believe in the aesthetic use of languagethat is, the habituation of poetic usage as itself onto something important about human life. Now, I doubt that Scafidi has more than a passing acquaintance with that difficult philosopher, and yet his work bears out the justice of the latter view.
This is another way of saying that Scafidi's work looks to find the sacred in the ordinary; it assumes that the ordinary is to be venerated as an incubator of sacred imaginings. Now it may be that the "sacred" is only what the poets say it is. Scafidi has no problem with lifting the sacred from its status as a natural thing and placing it in the category of made thing. Nor should he; in fact, the distinction no longer seems as intelligible as it may once have. Collapsing such distinctions is not catnip to the poet, as it is to the philosopher. As illustration, look at "The Egg Suckers":
To the snakes and the rats and the weasels
who skulk and tunnel and dig underneath
the moon and the earth to find the shiny
white ovum of their dreams laying there
warmed under the hen who coughs a little
moving away in the darkness of the gold
hay and the dust of my chicken coop
I say hello now from about fifty feet away
in my writing room at the beginning of Spring
for you are the egg suckers, the midnight
takers-away, the despised and slinky
snoopers, the geniuses of the world who
will be here when we are no more
The poem moves from the universal loathing of snakes to a lesser, winking disapproval of weasels and rats and that in turn to ironic identification with these beasts as, at first, ordinary consumers, then finally connoisseurs of eggs. The transformation maps the poem's thematic span, from stealthy pursuit to holy celebration as the eggs are consumed. But the holy and the aesthetic both proceed from the criminal: it takes the poem to push the one into the other. Because they are eggs (whose potentiality is eclipsed in the eating) a grandiose claim is impliedthat is, in the cultivation of such a diet. The fact is not lost on Scafidi. It is precisely in finding aesthetics (a tasty meal) at the center of a morally repugnantif naturalstate of affairs (eating unborn flesh) that Scafidi throws light on the battle between contested areas of self-understanding.
A well-known poem, "To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire," begins in reasonableness ("let us be friends and understand our differences") but ends in a curse ("I promise you I will lay the sharp blade deep// into your body"). The title sets the poem up so well, it replaces the need for exposition. The vandalism is reminiscent of KKK raids: night, country, idling cars, inability to ID perpetrators, the embarrassment of ambush. It's the transformation from rational behavior to seemingly justifiable (at least, understandable) violence. Again, Scafidi's customary trajectory comes into play: a transformation from one extreme of regard to another, with the result that something is learned, or intimated, or forgiven in the self's capacity for response. Here the trajectory ironically reverses what we normally take trajectories that are not physical to be: a journey from the less to the more; the bad to the good, etc. The poem doesn't just describe; by turning to a curse, it enacts the insanity of old-school racism. The truck, ironically associated with white men, is in this poem possessed by a black man (Scafidi is African-American). Again, form mediates the swell of anger and its enabling moral energy.
One of Scafidi's best poems is cleverly called "The Bee of Was." It is a marvelous, visionary poemand it's about "the marvelous," to use Heaney's phrase. In this poem, Scafidi leaves his preferred trajectory for an if-then structure. It's one of those poems that try to say everything by connecting the small directly with the immense, a kind of web that catches meaning in intimations. Now whether this is nutrition by means of crumbs is up to the reader. My thinking is that connecting the dots, done right, pays a compliment to the same reader. Scafidi's poems want to involve a larger canvas than lyric has traditionally been tasked to manage. That "The Bee of Was" in its cadence suggests The Wizard of Oz and in that, both the innocence of the myth of self-determination and the reality of deception and spin on the way to being.
The angel in the wheel and the forest in the man
And the old in the cold, cold bottomless Real
Turn the world we don't understand and turn
Dirt to roses and the tiny hands of the dead
Grip the levers and the handles of the machine
That lifts the lifted moon from the wide blue sea
That says, "Enough, enough, it's never enough,"
This chuff-chuff of want being is the gerund of...
To say language is a prison is to be somehow complicit in the fact of capturing. Running away from an engagement with the argument, however, leads toward verbal overcompensationthe danger elsewhere in Scafidi's work, less so here. But flight, when you think about it, is an argument too.
Another poem that moves among "marvelous" things is "For the Eighth Annual Celebration of St. Cecilia, the Patron Saint of Music, Purcellville, Virginia, November 1999," a title worthy of Baron Munchausen but equally bringing Dryden to mind. Dryden's "Song for St. Cecilia's Day" is a poem literally about composition, and takes the form of a creation poem for which the metaphor is replaced by literal creation by music. In Scafidi's poem, the reverse is true: the created instrument is imagined led, by apocalyptic changes, to ruin: art back to nature and nature to chaos. The image of a spruce-top violin recurs throughout the poem, as in recent movies a metonymy for music and as such, transcendent. By the end of the poem, the ruin of the last violin nonetheless returns seemingly arbitrary, but actually determined points on the globe:
when I think of music
so great no passage of time could ever kill it
I think of some future day far away I hope
when a mouse pulls some brown grass through the hole
it gnawed in the very
last violin lying somewhere half smashed
in the charred ruins of the shiny ancient cities of
Cleveland or Sacramento
Yet, by virtue of his own poem, Scafidi knows that chaos cannot be allowed the last word. No poet writes for the rats. It is another poem of rhetorical rush, running headlong into its own demise and imagined remembrance. This poem is also one of apocalyptic endings, but ends on a positive note, a saving note. It is not, however, a poem of easy optimism, and I must note that its final image is given in mind, not reality. The harmony of Scafidi's spheres is not God-made, but internal.
In Scafidi's formalism the language is exuberant and expansive. The use of form, however, is intended as much as anything to keep the language from ballooning into overwriting (a weakness that the poet is aware of). The tension between expansiveness and confinement, when successfulas is most often the caseresults in a poetry that is stirring in its quest for self-possession and soaring in its literary ambition. Scafidi's poems share a similar range. They are frequently a page long (rarely longer or short). While intimation is his method, ordinary understatement is not. He is more allusive than would seem to be the case at first glance. For example, "On the Occasion of an Argument beside the River Where I Lie" begins,
Someone says we are trapped in language, and so the sun drops overhead
Through stilly pines where the river explains nothing and far away now
Several men and women on the Yangtsze look up from their nets and
Point to the sky.
Bright Chinese fish, like all my words struggle in the nets of a stranger.
and it is the truth,
not my truth or some private certainty I tell you.
The poet glances in the direction of Hardy ("stilly"), which in turn brings up the silent ravages of chance (as related to the Titanic), and this in turn informs the men and women on the Yangtsze whose actions on the other side of the world, while subject to chance, are not thereby mastered by it.
Scafidi's dynamic range leads him to an interest in that old subject, the sublime. In fact he has a poem called "The Sublime." In that poem, the dream doesn't work out, and "you" become "nothing" a dog eats, then defecates. At length, you are "thrown away," and these amazing things happen to you, this continual pilgrimage through the guts of animals and of the earth itselfall shatteringare delivered with the gusto and gratitude of Hamlet's gravedigger.
Poems like "For the Last American Buffalo," where the soul is likened to a buffalo who "walks through me every night as if I was/ some kind of prairie" move him in the thematic direction of the other side of the ineffablei.e., the ineffable in one's own self:
It is the loneliest thing I know
to approach it slowly with my hand outstretched
to tenderly touch the heavy skull furred and rough
and stroke that place huge between its ears where
what I think and what it thinks are one singing thing
In the bawdily titled "Ode to the Perineum" the soul returns to suffer comparison with "that pleasurable/ one millionth acre/ of nerves that lies between the asshole and the valleying//gradual beginning of our sex." The poem is similar to "The Sublime." There is a sense of the phantasmagoric, of snowballing. One remembers that this rhetorical plenitude is characteristic of a strain of African-Amerian poetry. Amusingly he contrasts the image of the perineum to the image of a hummingbird: "such a symbol for the soul/ to be honest must include the microscopic blue turds//thudding lightly onto the grass." Reaching for heaven by directing his quill to that spot between his legs, the poet doesn't forget to rise for a moment just long enough to laugh.