Tuesday, May 10, 2022

On Earth As It Is By Michael Todd Steffen

 

On Earth As It Is

By Michael Todd Steffen

Cervena Barva Press

www.cervenabarvapress.com

W. Somerville, MA

ISBN: 978-1-950063-17-8

53 Pages

$16.00

 

Review by Dennis Daly

 

Matter-of-factness takes center stage in Michael Todd Steffen’s magnificent collection of poetry entitled On Earth As It Is. Acceptance, albeit with enormous curiosity, seems meted into each poem’s very marrow and, with it, the poet’s cogent observations. No confessional spattering here. Only hard detail, telling irony, and all-weather humor.  

 

Steffen’s objectivity stems from an apparent deep-seated stoicism not unsimilar to the rather dry meditations left by Marcus Aurelius (Consider Aurelius’ belief that externals do not enter a person’s essence. Quite the opposite.). The complexity of this book is evident even in its title, which exhibits a connection to the Lord’s Prayer and brings with it another meaning entirely.

 

In one of the collections early poems, Climb to Climber, Steffen reveals the durable nature that surrounds mankind. The world, embedded with ultimate truths, governs the upward trek of life’s adventure. The Mulberry tree fostered silkworms, which, in turn, encouraged human connection by trade route. Carpenters used other woods to build ships and inspire the spiritual in congregation after congregation.  Yes, nature witnesses all, sometimes beneficial, sometimes not so much. Steffen’s piece concludes with a question mark,

 

… Look up

in an old cathedral and notice

the upside-down hull of a ship

urgent with angels,

 

the clouds they emerge from

good as any basis.

                                            When you

stumble where the sidewalk heels up

with the wandering roots of a tree

jolting the frame in you, is it

without intention—nobody

there—heating your cheek

for the shade cast over you,

the high leaves jeering in a breeze?

 

Perhaps the oddest and funkiest rite showcased by religious zealots, who once crisscrossed rural America, must be poisonous snake handling. Derived from biblical verse, this lethal practice exemplifies the downside of literal interpretations of religious texts. Steffen’s poem Snake draws down the dangerous implications of mixing faith with tangible reality. By adding “in heaven” to the book’s title phrase “as it is” gives one not just a different meaning, but a contrasting and ultimately ironic meaning. The poet looks at his subject with detail and fascination—almost snake-like. He opens his poem coldly,

 

Tail, neck. It’s a member of itself,

extension to eyes. It’s a mouth

 

alive by its severed tongue that tastes the air,

sighted by glimpses, vanishing, of what all

 

lies beyond my ordinary senses,

outside the savoir of the myths of old

 

even to Gilgamesh from whom

a sea serpent stole the sprig of eternal life…

 

My favorite poem in this collection Steffen titles The Vice of Innocence. An arrangement of three short stanzas, the poet lets in enough ambiguity to create a magical, almost numinous atmosphere. Steffen also makes good use of a bit of Frost-like imagery. He presents denial as a life force, a strategy, which allows humankind to cope. The universe disguises any ultimate deliverance in circuitousness and seasonal change. Here, one’s innocence,

 

prides itself in its certainty

of denial

to allow the seasons to

turn,

 

following its leaf-strewn path

on the way to its narrow salvation

deeper in the woods.

 

Both title poem and master work of this collection, Steffen’s piece Ansel Adams conjures up an alien and wanton universe, richly detailed and ever-expanding. Steffen accurately depicts the artistic vision of Adams and connects with it in a charmed, uncertain landscape. He is taken by the un-colorized grandeur of what is objectively there and the dynamism inherent in it. Consider the heart of the poem,

 

So much of what he aspired to take

and therefore leave was land on land

on land, an edition of views of a nearly

alien planet, earth as other. Insleeve?

Back cover? Where even was the photographer’s

picture? Bowl of valley? Aerialist pines?

 

His millennially worn pristine meccas

and reclining foothills

powerfully magnetized compositions.

His dalliance with sagebrush blurred

in ankle breezes.

His patience and rigor couldn’t keep

The clouds from being capricious—

Wisp to flock to castle.

 

For many, college graduations bring with them disillusionment and disorientation. The world of hard knocks awaits the former student with big-picture problems that will soon overwhelm his or her privilege and pettiness. Steffen uses a little rural humor to effectively complete the trajectory of his poem Leaving College. The poet proffers these telling, homespun lines,

 

…I was grinning at a card

from a rancher uncle in Western

Nebraska, congratulating me

For being no damn better

Than one of them January days

That turns your lips blue

Now that I had one degree.

 

Metaphoric and wonderful, Steffen’s ode To a Housefly in Winter steeps his readers in scientific particulars that disguise a burgeoning, uncontainable irony, at least until the last stanza. All the while Steffen exults in the marvelous biology of the housefly, he laments the metaphysical unfairness, the tragedy of fate. The two constructs, unfortunately, go together. This awareness of terrestrial dazzle and confinement seems to liberate the poet into a concluding action,

 

Near your claws there are

adhesive pads, pulvilli,

facilitating your walk

 

on walls and ceilings

with glorious

agility

having its own sorrowful

 

demise, betokened by one

of your forebears,

a partial wing left,

flat on his back

 

in the window sill.

Beyond the thin transparency

full of light attracting you,

you must feel the confine

 

I clothe myself

to step out of, into

my own wondrous machine’s

transitory clinging.

 

Steffens poetry transcends artistic perspective. Its fail-safe distance invites readers to share his steady visions as they are on earth, in heaven, or, perhaps, elsewhere. An impressive second book.

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