Friday, March 07, 2008

Steve and Eric

Several years ago, when my friend Steve moved from Upstate New York to Sicily, he sent me four big boxes of poetry books. We have talked about and corresponded about poetry on various occasions since 1969-70, when we both taught at Roosevelt Junior High School in Syracuse. Steve's impressive collection contains a number of long-out-of-print pamphlets, chapbooks, and heftier volumes, many of them from the beats and other counter-culturists from the sixties and seventies. It contains numerous originals from City Lights Books, such as Ginsberg's Howl and Kaddish. Steve had collected much of the work of A.R. Ammons, his poetry teacher at Cornell. I keep this special collection on a couple shelves in my office, readily available from my rocking chair. I refer to it often and sometimes loan the books to student poets.
The other day I received an envelope from Steve containing Eric Unger's limited edition Just as Form, from House Press, June 2007. This is typical of the stuff Steve sometimes introduces me to and that I would never discover on my own. This 5.5 in. by 7.5 in. thread-bound chapbook consists of 27 untitled poems, few of them over 11 lines, each spare and fragmentary. The blunt stanzas most commonly run 2 to 4 lines. Lots of white space. The collection is filled with elemental words and phrases: tree, moon, sun, eye, wood, water, ice, black, white, star. Here is one poem:

In a black night
sleep deepens

The star out
the window
is the North Star.

Its distant burning
is the only light
in the dream.

The concentration of these 26 mostly monosyllabic words forces the ear toward the repeated "ee" sound, the echo of "night" and "light," the doubling up on "star." The mostly terse lines contrast with the longest and slowest line, "Its distant burning." The repeated sounds and motifs through the book urge us to see the small collection as all of a piece. When occasionally we come across a word like "circus" or "apogee," so out of keeping with the pervasive organic, naturalistic diction, the word stands out, drawing energy to itself. I'm glad Steve introduced me to this Chicago poet.

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