In: Book, With meaning

580 Split Issue 5 – Hugh Steinberg “Freedom #4”

580 Split, published out of Mills College, is probably the best university-affiliated creative writing journal on the west coast right now. Actually, it’s just about the only one I can think of other than SF State’s Fourteen Hills, which is uneven, but features some good work. As far as I know, Berkeley Poetry Review is now defunct, and UCSC’s Quarry West hasn’t done anything interesting since the excellent Ron Silliman issue about five years ago. Are there any others I’m forgetting or am unaware of?

580 Split offers the closest thing available in an institutionally-sponsored venue to a representative sampling of Bay Area writers, as well as many from other places. This issue features Tanya Brolaski, Cheryl Burket, Sarah Anne Cox, Michael Cross, Brent Cunningham, Catherine Daly, Noah Eli Gordon, Duriel Harris, John Latta, Brydie McPherson, Laura Moriarty, Yedda Morrison, Stephen Ratcliffe, Chris Stroffolino, Rodrigo Toscano, and Stephanie Young, in addition to a bunch of people I’m not familiar with.

Among the surprises: a poem by one Hugh Steinberg, who was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford according to his bio, and yet has somehow managed to emerge writing interesting work. The poem is called "Freedom #4," implying a series. Taken out of this larger context, it’s difficult to get a read on tone, but there is a strange mix of populist pseudo-optimism and mildly discordant indeterminacy. I’m going to reprint the poem in full, risking copyright infringement—but hey, 580 Split, consider it free advertising:

Moral struggle and sometimes those messages
disintegrate into babble, evoking while you
were asleep thunderous sparks, a metaphor for
something hammered and lovely, for community
in the stream. You get to say what you want to say.
They adorned the church sanctuary with banners,
stamped their booted feet, clapped their hands,
snapped their fingers with such abandon and
we feel great. We’re a sinewy nation, exultant in
the resourcefulness that freedom brings. If the city
is pillaged and crumbling, all around us, enough
of us remain to generate our own knowledge.
From what was once broken we’ll find in such
pieces sheer joy in bringing something imperfect closer.

It’s a fragile poem in many ways; if I were to read the rest of the series and be disappointed, it might lessen my admiration for this section. But coming at it fresh, I like the way it flirts with sentimental rhetoric but stops short of sentimentality itself. I like the oddball form, a sonnet with an extra one-word line ("bringing something imperfect / closer": is this intentional self-reflexiveness?). I like the music, the swelling into and out of mutedly anthemic moments.

Chris Stroffolino’s selections are two of the best poems I have seen from a poet I admire greatly already. You can’t get the total effect from this excerpt, but listen to the jazzy time signatures in this passage from "Without Rust":

I know I’m right
I know I know I’m right
About this year’s Saab
That can go 60 to zero in one quick crash
That can’t turn left unless it turns right at the same time
The love Turbo test-driven on no dummies but us
And placing our heads back on
Was as dramatic and accidental as losing them.

All right, I’ll admit it, I’m not a musician and I have no idea what a time signature really is, but it sort of sounds like what I want to mean here. The best description of Chris’ style, perhaps, is given in the passage itself: it "can’t turn left unless it turns right at the same time." Chris is the closest thing we have to a contemporary John Lyly: his characteristic use of elaborate grammatical parallelisms to establish relations of simultaneity, equivalence, and contrast is Euphuistic at base. At his best, as here, this ornamental shuttling between one hand and the other, men and de, positive and negative, yin and yang, creates the effect of a passionate mind racing, in and out of love, ecstatic and despairing, epiphanic and stultified. I really can’t stress enough how vital I think Chris’ poetry is.

Ditto for Stephanie Young! She has three poems in this issue, which is enough reason by itself to buy it. The first one, "You Cannot Shun Yourself," consists of an extended tmesis (the rhetorical figure in which a unitary word or phrase is divided by another, inserted word or phrase, as in "un-fucking-believable") built around a quote from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. The title phrase is the first half, spoken by Troilus to Cressida; Cressida’s reply comes in at the end of the last line of the poem. Everything in between constitutes an opening-outward (inward?) from the framing allusion. Stephanie has a deft sense of how to splice together the elevated and the quotidian effectively (tmesis is Greek for cutting). "This is progress: lyric as a household tool," she writes in the same poem. And in "I Test My Inner Strength, one of the other two, she reveals a major strength of her poetry, which is the forementioned inability to shun herself as a source of autobiographical material: "I compose my best in the bath." This deceptively mundane confession brings together the domestic and the lyric in a Doris Day moment of effervescence that would be merely winsome if it were not inserted, among other similarly inserted instances, into a preemptive context of post-Romantic ego-busting. Hence Cressida’s reply?

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