Stuart Bartow’s poems are a proper antidote to two polarities in American poetry, vapidity and pretension. Squashed between those polarities, the spirit of inquiry goes begging, but not in Bartow’s work. He connects the dots. He does not come across as contemptuous of the butterfly effect, as does the American press in its adamant refusal to connect the dots—a refusal shared by many poets, perhaps in the misguided conviction that it contradicts modernist ideas about poetry.
When the American press called George W. Bush incurious it might well have been talking about itself and a large body of our poetry, which prefers to play it safe, keep it light, and by all means spurn the rhapsodic.
The sonnet is in some ways a form of self-discipline, a way of accustoming oneself to thinking concisely. There is something in its fourteen-line structure that requires you to organize your thoughts into a kind of algorithm that then helps you address enigmas, whether in your daily rounds or in your poetry. Stuart Bartow’s nonce sonnets , published here in Arabesques for the first time, reveal his rigor as a poet and as a seeker after elixirs for the elements of his experiences. Succinctness is not merely about saying something well and sharply, it’s about going to the quick: it’s about quickness.
The poems in Einstein’s Lawn are varied. Some of them are prose poems. There are couplets, metered stanzas, rhymed stanzas, and concrete poems. Because he is writing about Albert Einstein and physics, he has taken care to provide notes lest we’re unfamiliar with the God particle, Glaucus or Absolute Zero.
“Einstein’s Homework” on page 59 cast a durable enchantment on me:
wasn’t Einstein’s but an eight-year-old girl’s,
who took to him in Princeton.
She’d visit him after school (unknown
by her parents) and Albert would help
with her math and homework. Imagine
Bach for music tutor, Michelangelo
for art, Darwin for science,
or Dickinson for poetry.
And then, and then the poet does something he does magically well. I knock on Emily’s door, he says. From Princeton to Amherst in a stanza. Now we hear of his encounter with Dickinson.
One of our most pernicious received ideas is that lyricism and science are somehow inimical to each other. It’s a notion that would have dismayed the medieval Arab, Persian, Amazigh and Jewish poets, who were often mathematicians, doctors and astronomers. And it’s a notion that carries no weigh for Stuart Bartow. Consider how his poem, “Magical Boy,” begins:
After the cometfall, when all
but mushrooms are gone, the odyssey
through ash and infinite gray,
through rain, cinders, burnt cities, where
green is extinct and humans
exist only on the brink, the hero dies,
his son alone by a dead sea.
I feel in some odd way that this opening stanza led me to discover Steve Wozniak’s eerie comment that someday humans will be robots’ pets. And that phenomenon, the power of a poem to lead us somewhere unexpected and expectedly, resides in abundance in this poet’s work. He is himself led by his epiphanies and contemplations. He does himself make heroic leaps through time and space, and the excellence of his work is that it enables us to go with him, and then to pursue our own adventures, indebted to a poet whose presence we may not even acknowledge.
In a society afflicted with one of the diagnostic measures of Asperger’s Syndrome—an insistence on being right based on a limited number of received ideas—a refusal to be swayed by subsequent knowledge and discourse—poets who challenge our minds, who daunt us, like Stuart Bartow, are not always welcome by editors afflicted with some degree of the syndrome. The press, the critical establishment, is afflicted with it. Don’t bother us with context, don’t try to lay perspective on us, our society seems to say. We read it somewhere and that’s that, the subject is closed, like our minds. This is the way we receive news, and it explains why journalists keep trying to operate as a burial detail for poetry—they know poetry is the cutting edge of our culture. They know it is the news of our society. And they don’t want any interlopers on their artificial turf.
Bartow is in interloper. He connects the dots, which is anathema to cup-bearers of the received idea. He troubles them so much that even when he sings purely and speaks presciently their narcissistic focus remains on their being troubled rather than the beauty and intelligence offered.
If you want to see where poetry might take us if we put our resentments towards being enlightened, read this poet.
Einstein’s Lawn, Stuart Bartow, 80pp, 2015, Dos Madres Press Inc., $17
—Djelloul Marbrook © Copyright 2016