Online Edition: Winter 2005/2006

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American Ghost Roses

Kevin Stein

University of Illinois Press ($16.95)

by Jean-Paul Pecqueur

In a world where life is transitory and contingent, loss is inevitable. This is one lesson we quickly learn in American Ghost Roses, Kevin Stein's new collection of poems. That the inevitability of loss need not lead to melancholy or to despair is another such lesson. Loss can, in fact, generate its own beauty. Stein calls this beauty "skewed"; "What I mean," he writes, "is I love skewed beauty," a love that has led him to craft an exceptional volume of poems.

The first thing to know about Stein's skewed beauty is that it is neither natural nor transparent. Stein pointedly calls attention to this fact in the volume's first poem, "Wishful Rhetoric." "Finis," the speaker begins, "I love the oh-so-postmodern opening." The italics, the roll of the long O, the irony announcing itself--this is postmodernism at its finest, as in a celebration of textualism, of that which has been Written.

In other words, Stein's is not a plain style. Arguably, the most remarkable quality in American Ghost Roses is the poems' overt craft. Notice the syntactic, sonic, and imagistic movement in the following stanza:

So Finis. There now, the daisies' clean faces
need never wrinkle, their eyes never shut,
and the plump clump swaying in May breeze
need never dismantle June's skeletal erector set.

Unlike some exercises in the higher styles, Stein's "wishful rhetoric" is not displayed to hide a lack of substantial content. Stein employs it for more immediate reasons, to discover and to demonstrate the uses to which beauty can be put.

In the poem's final stanza the speaker pauses--"Breathe in and forget / the out"-- before deploying his last rhetorical gesture, a brief talismanic incantation: "I am the bank, the root, the fat honeycomb. / I am the aphid milking an everlasting tit." Having gathered all his poetic resources, the speaker now possesses the drive to complete his difficult task: "There now," the poem concludes; "I'll make the twenty calls from home, // each beginning, 'My father died last night.'"

The poems in American Ghost Roses seem intended to compensate for real, existential loss. And the losses Stein recounts in these poems are many. The volume begins with the immediate and personal loss of a father. After this we encounter a loss of humanity in poems about a boy who drank Drano, a girl who fell on a spike, and a friend's mother who was decorated with bruises. Finally, the tone of the whole is conditioned by the poet's lost youth refigured as the loss of an era.

Loss isn't the only subject matter Stein explores in this volume. On the contrary, Stein writes just as many poems to celebrate the things he loves, be these Bob Marley's toes or Sappho's fragments, cantaloupes or wheelbarrows. It remains uncertain whether Stein learned to see the beauty of a cantaloupe by recognizing the skewed beauty in the memory of a fight, or whether he learned to see the skewed beauty in a bruise by learning to recognize the beauty of a wheelbarrow. In either case, Kevin Stein clearly recognizes beauty in American Ghost Roses. For fans of beauty, this volume is sure to prove gratifying.


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