Thursday, October 15, 2009
Under the El
by David Stone
Review by Miriam Levine
In the Depths
It’s a fine thing to have these little chapbooks from Propaganda Press. The not-for-profit press is part of Alternating Current Arts Co-op based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and dedicated to “inexpensive publishing and distributing.” So far their list includes: A.D. Winans, Ed Galing, and B.Z. Niditch, among others. The slim publications printed on recycled paper measure four-and-a-quarter inches by five-and-a-half inches and will easily fit in your pocket or snug into your hand.
Sounds cute, doesn’t it? However, David Stone’s “Under the El” is not cute. Stone is a prophetic poet in the tradition of Ginsberg and Blake. Ginsberg of the Moloch section of “Howl.” Moloch, the cruel hungry god demanding blood sacrifice, burnt offerings. Ginsberg makes Moloch the god of the fallen city:
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in parks!
Demons and death spirits also haunt Stone’s fallen city of “burnt carcasses.” He mentions Pluto, Hecate, and Belphegor, a devil, who seduces people by suggesting ingenious devices to make them rich—certainly not a sin in our era of iPhone apps. He is also the demon of the deadly sin of sloth.
The atmosphere of Stone’s underworld is “toxic,” spirit-besmirching, giving off the “aroma of death” and “sulphur scent.” Stone repeatedly uses the word “hell.” His city is not the City of Light or glorious Athens or dynamic New York or enlightened Boston. It’s a “sad city/ where teachers/ are raped by students,” and where there are ‘more beatings on buses/ & on subways,” and “city/ vultures scan the debris.” The underworld is populated by disgusting creatures: wolves, rats, skunks, and “paleozoic carnivores.”
In this time of feel-good, I-love-this-I-love-that poems, it is shocking and clarifying to read Stone’s work and remember lines from Blake’s poem, “London”:
I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
Stone conjures up his hellish city, jabs at us with spare lines:
In the title poem, the speaker emerges from underground where “in the subway tunnel/ bats slide down stalactites.” He smells chocolate, passes a restaurant, “people eating,/ drinking port,/ lighting up stogies.” These pleasures, Stone would say, exist in a city of “six million rats.” Yet, he composes these playfully constructed lines:
in the realm of the Dead
survive on benches
waiting for a
note of jazz.
His playfulness occurs only in his line arrangements, not in his dark vision of hellish Chicago.
** Miriam Levinet recent book is The Dark Opens, winner of the 2007 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the author of In Paterson, a novel, Devotion: A Memoir, three poetry collections, and A Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, among many other places.
A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts writing fellowship and grants from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, she was a fellow at Yaddo, Hawthornden Castle, Le Château de Lavigny, Villa Montalvo, Fundación Valparaíso, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.
She is Professor Emerita at Framingham State College, where she chaired the English Department and was Coordinator of the Arts and Humanities Program.