reviewed by The Judge
"Only I have come / Today, in bad-luck weather, in unremitting rain." These lines are from Robert Stein’s ‘At Tintagel. At James Turner’s grave’. One understands why he would lament the ‘bad-luck weather’ – it spoils the solemnity, the magic of an engagement with such a great figure as Turner. Then again, perhaps that’s kind of the point. Without the happening of time and chance, the presence of Turner would be a bit too much to handle. Struck by rain, it is easier for the poet to look elsewhere, at other people and himself.
This poem, from Stein’s first collection The Very End of Air (TVEA), stages one particular way of engaging with culture – in terms of its anecdotal, real-life expression, as opposed to its conceptual or abstract significance. It’s a manner of representation that is pretty hard to execute, mainly because it requires that you strike the right balance between lyrical introspection and genuine, original meditation on whatever or whomever it is that you are referencing. Stein, having written in TVEA a collection that makes a specialty of referencing (sometimes even ventriloquising) a very wide array of cultural figures, from ancient to modern history, is wielding a double-edged sword. His book is colourful and pleasant to follow as it hops from one world, one time, one culture to another. At the same time it bares its flank to a proportionally wide range of potential criticism.
The result is that the collection is weakened, rather than reinforced, by the poet’s scattershot imagination. As long as Stein is playing on home turf (the forte here seems to be in Romanticism and Modernism), the poems work rather well. His episodes involving John Keats and Beethoven are enjoyable and engaged. When he moves away from those areas, however, his confidence seems to falter. His poems about Jesus play around with some of the gospel’s mythical images, but do not investigate them in a particularly original way. ‘Actaeon’ is frankly perplexing. The poem seems to bring together three different mythical iterations without bothering to display a proper understanding of the differences between them. Actaeon’s story was originally Greek, but Stein references Diana rather than Artemis, so presumably he’s using the Latin account instead – except that he goes on to talk about a ‘fiasco-painting’, so I’m guessing (via Google) that what he had in mind was Titian’s 16th Century painting of the episode? So we’re dealing with a poem of a painting of a translation of a story; it’s easy to get lost.
The variety of references, some of them rather obscure (who exactly is ‘John Porogue’?), suggests that Stein’s concern is not with the culture of a specific place or historical period but with the concept of culture itself. Unfortunately, all too often this concern seems to take the form of an anxiety. Stein comes across as a poet intimidated by the great figures he deals with, and he frequently feels the need to reassure the reader and himself that he feels the proper reverence for them, either by writing a poem about going to visit Turner’s grave, or by apologising for coming short of their greatness ("sorry, he / has the words, I don’t" in ‘With John Keats in Soho’), or even by having his characters speak out some of these fears and desires in their supposedly satirical lines: "See me – this once – shimmer among the elect". (‘Scotland Dead’).
I would argue that what Stein has fallen for is a particular type of trap that is very common among the smarter intellectuals. Imagine a teenager who, after having scored one-hundred and thirty on an IQ test, starts asking himself whether there is any way to improve on that score, and goes through a lot of effort to study the problem. In this case, the teenager is clearly a bright kid but his own intelligence is causing him to worry about something incredibly stupid. Stein is the victim of a similar problem: he is obviously a highly cultured individual, but it is his own culture that is making him concerned about things that are, to the reader, rather frivolous. What he (probably) believes to be his writing’s strongest point is in fact what clamps it down: the poem ‘A Dispatch from The Nearest Planet’ starts by painting a delightfully abstract picture in which the poet’s unique imagination seems to come to life, but he then spoils this when he worries halfway through that "[t]his must not be written of in low, reticent verse", and speaks scornfully of a character because she ‘pretends she knows Shakespeare’. The poem ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ is written in a very similar style, but it renounces these cultural preoccupations, and reads much better for it.
Indeed, some of Stein’s better work is in the second half of the collection, in poems such as ‘Boatbuilders at Larachbeg,’ ‘Rain’ or ‘The Mute Girl Accuses’, plus the entire sequence ‘Seven Women’. Here the historical background is used deftly and to good effect, and the poet’s voice genuinely shines – suggesting that what Stein needs is not to drop the cultural engagement, only to refine it. These poems give a true sense of what the artist can achieve when his focus is tighter, and they let us look forward to a strong second collection. As for TVEA, it is promising but – in my opinion – a bit rudimentary. It tries too hard to be subtle at the expense of clarity, and displays a bad habit of breaking sentences off half-finished. Some of the phrase constructions are not suggestive but nonsensical, such as the ending to ‘The Farmer’s Daughter Does Not Write a Letter’: "I see you and the sun is about./ It thumps me like an old cow and with it says is." There is also an occasional unwelcome reliance on meaningless words or omissions, as in the final lines of ‘Actaeus’ ("And something, something suffering makes it all good?") or ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ ("He’ll doff the tricornered hat and say Huh?"). If the poet himself can’t find better words than ‘something, something’ or ‘huh’, then there isn’t much point to the poem.
But these are all issues that should be easily corrected, and they do not detract from Stein’s work in the better poems, where his use of language – especially when conjuring abstract, symbolic images – is inspiring and effective. I’ll say again that Stein should be able to pull off a very good second collection if he can only address the roughness in his form, and I for one look forward to reading it.
Before closing, it’s worth spending a word to lament the poverty of the edition. Stein’s book comes in the dullest grey you can imagine, in a material that feels like plastic. The font for the title is a bland Times New Roman in italics which makes the whole thing look cheap, the cover-image is a ripped-off 1991 picture of a window which, as far as I can tell, has nothing to do with the contents, and the back-cover is filled with quotes of disproportionate praise which are a little difficult to take seriously. If this is the standard presentation for Oversteps Books, then they need to (over)step it up, certainly much more so than Stein himself does.