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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 03:17 am

A poetic roller coaster — hold on for the ride


Q: What is there to love about Sufficiency of the Actual, Kevin Stein’s new book of poetry?
A: Everything you’ve loved about Stein’s other work: delightful wordplay, humor (light and dark), cultural icons from classical to popular, universal themes (light and heavy)and dagger-strike vivid images.

If you haven’t yet read Kevin Stein, there is no better introduction than this collection, which will make you think, feel, contemplate soberly and sometimes laugh out loud.

If you think you don’t like poetry, you should try Kevin Stein’s. He’s a poet for hip, cynical, post-modern, morally ambiguous times. Perhaps these poem titles are a clue that his work is nothing like your forced sixth-grade recitations: “Middle-aged Adam’s and Eve’s Bedside Tables”; “On Thinking of the Second Time They Shoveled Up Mr. Lincoln”; “To My Hair”; “Lovesong Ending with (         )”; “On Reading Prince Valiant in the Sunday Comics”; “Parable of the American Stag Party.” There’s not a sing-song rhythm, predictably end-rhymed verse, or love “like a red, red rose” (without irony, anyway) in this book. It’s a roller coaster ride.

At a glance, many of the poems in Sufficiency of the Actual are arranged in apparently regular stanzas, of five lines, four lines, three, sixteen. On reading them, though, you’ll find that sentences often run on, overflowing their lines, and even the breaks between stanzas, as if no disciplined poetic form on a page could contain the disparate images, thoughts and emotions Stein must express. For me, this almost-synaesthesia is what characterizes Kevin Stein’s poetry: Moved by both the ideas and the subversion of form, the reader can only hang on and hurtle onward, hoping for a tolerable resolution, not sure whether to cry out from delight or from the frequent reminders of mortality.

Like a roller coaster twists, turns, and returns, Stein’s poems never fail to surprise, from right-now to flashback, from the exalted to the base, from literary allusions to images of the counterculture and working class, from the universal to the intensely personal or profound and back again – ricocheting the reader from one unexpected image to another even more startling, and linking them in memorable, word-bending juxtapositions.

In “Autumnal,” we careen from “[l]ofting the Molotov cocktail into the church’s/empty lot” as a young protester to “driving home from the hospital after something/they called our baby had died,” to the  musing, “Some things you do you wish you hadn’t/Some you don’t you wish you had./It’s years before you know the difference,/so what good’s remorse?”

In the title poem, “Sufficiency of the Actual,” Pete Townsend and John Entwistle of The Who abide with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein. “On Being a Nielsen Family” alludes to both Oprah Winfrey and Descartes. Rush Limbaugh makes an appearance in “CR5115STD Responds to the National Consumer Surveys.” We see Walt Whitman and Bob Marley in “A Day’s Work,” along with “those cartoons where the wolf and Ralph his sheepdog buddy/punch in at the same lame time clock.”

Nothing escapes Stein’s scrutiny, and he can transform ordinary things into indelible images by playing with words and sounds, like “the arched porch/trellised with trumpet creeper and the strumming/of hummingbird wings” in “Mowing The Lawn,” or “a throng of thonged/neon-lit lounge ladies” in “Colonialism.” In “Lives of the Painters” we see how “Yellow on white, the moth floated/death’s Post-It note.” These descriptions twist the tongue, intrigue the mind’s eye and curl the lips into a smile.

Kevin Stein is Caterpillar Professor of English at Peoria’s Bradley University. As the Illinois Poet Laureate, Stein promotes poetry throughout the state through readings, audio and video recordings, and programs with students. For more information, visit his website: www.bradley.edu/poet/. Sufficiency of the Actual is his fifth poetry collection.

Thea Chesley, a retired librarian, is now at liberty to work as a freelance writer, editor, poet and wag. She was the First Place Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award winner in the 2008 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition.

The Sufficiency of the Actual by Kevin Stein. University of Illinois Press, 104 pp.

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