Wednesday, December 16, 2020


by Steven Cramer
(MadHat Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Clarissa Adkins

In Steven Cramer’s sixth poetry book, his namesake poem, “Listen,” directs the reader to be a present observer of the speaker’s mindful relationship with the world: “how // resonant—the bones of our middle ears.” This same poem introduces us to a family history that expresses two lineages: one of personal experience and the other the ideal of poetic craftsmanship. These interwoven paths act as a gentle blueprint for the overall theme of the collection in which Listen equally embraces the reader in intimate and analytical ways. Cramer guides us through emotional and metaphysical pathways regarding the theme of listening. He accomplishes this intricacy by using the word “listen” variously as subject, object, action, philosophy, or as noun. The result is a clear demonstration of Cramer’s sincere and masterful poetic craft: a collection of poems that is wonderfully accessible, yet masterfully subtle.

This personal lure into the poet’s mind feels a little like receiving two invitations in the mail on the same day—one to a casual, close-friend get-together, and the other to a bowtie wedding. “It got bad; pretty bad” in the poem “Bad” as the book begins, and then proceeds to grow even more straightforward in later lines, “Christ, let’s let things not get even worse.” This juxtaposes with the strikingly romantic couplet from the very next poem, “South Belknap”: “and sparrows fly into and out from the azaleas, / and roses flicker, fire from a magician’s fingertips.” Cramer carries the reader seamlessly in and out of these unceremonious or tender voices. Earlier in “South Belknap” we learn about the speaker’s moroseness in a starkly matter-of-fact way: “first time I recall wanting to die I was eight. / When I tried and nearly did I really wanted to live.”

These oppositional pairings of dreaminess and severity occurring in the space of one poem reveal an oxymoron of strong vulnerability in the poet. Cramer lets the reader see, feel, hear, taste, and touch his speakers’ experiences. Lines like, “but first, love, help me stop playing dead” in “Zuni Fetishes, Santa Fe” take away the reader’s breath. And again, in “The World,” the reader cannot help but feel alongside the speaker, “I saw two futures—one a / moonlit shoreline; one a diagnosis.”

Cramer divides Listen into four numbered sections. Like the first, the second section conveys an unabashed intimacy and includes several poems about marriage and relationships. The first poem in this section, “Self-Portrait with Insomnia, Rocks, and Fireflies,” again delivers romantic, nature imagery:

    [. . . ] Mystic Lake
    wets me a fourth time,
    then settles me bottomward,
    one among millions
    cast into the snail’s pace of underwater time.

Later in the poem the intimacy marries the nature:

    and beside you now I’d swear to anything:
    I’m that tired in this sleepless daydream
    as a deeply appreciated pebble, while a ring
    of rocks circles the August lakefront fire—

The section continues the theme of relationships and the brutally honest tone with “A Habit” where the speaker announces in the first line, “If she’s unhappy, she stays upstairs.” And, as it appears throughout the book, the many meanings intrinsic in the title of the book weave in and out of the poems. We see this again in the last four lines of “A Habit”:

    Now, after sex, they press their palms, hard,
    against each other’s ears—inducing
    for that moment before they disengage
    the feeling of being both deafening and deaf.

These lines express yet another dichotomy with the double-play of “deaf” being an oxymoron similar to deafening silence. The idea of listening grows deeper in meaning, as if the poet means to express how one has to listen, must listen, needs to listen, yet has to suffer the emotional consequences of doing or not doing so when called to.

Cramer ends the second section with “Elegy to My Family,” which lands the reader in the speaker’s dreaming, then awakening, as once again we heed the call to listen: “[. . .] poplars circle / the duck pond. New Jersey church spires blacker // than the black sky. What I tell her wakes me up.”

The third section turns and twists, in places, into a different call. “American Freedom” grapples with the recent political climate: “he writes an email quoting Naomi Klein— / ‘for the men who rule this world, / rules are for the other people.’” This ars poetica piece shows Cramer’s personal call to address the new, gloomy connotations creeping upon the word freedom and how bleak it is to feel that one can no longer fail to address it, “‘Never / write a poem about anything that needs a poem / about it,’ wrote Richard Hugo. Dick, he thinks, / times change.” Still, the tone of the section returns to the vulnerability of the speaker, where the band plays in his memory, in “Born to Be Wild”:

    Ken, Tom, Fred, and I preferred to be the band,
    since bands stood taller by virtue of standing
    on wobbly lunchroom tables we made a stage.
    Bands might play “Born to Be Wild” six times
    a night and still not have the song by heart.

We listen with the speaker, and share the youthful awkwardness alongside him as an adult who is now grown with children of his own.

Other poems in the third section echo the voices of American staples such as “Independence Day,” and “Frontier,” albeit without any stereotypes the reader may expect. But, “A Burn So Bad It Requires Ice” picks up the call to action in a less understated manner than “American Freedom” with the lines, “now there’s a carrot ruining history, don’t / we need more words whose melodies can’t / mean their meanings—pulchritude, for one?” It’s not that the openness dissipates, however. In “Time Out” the speaker takes respite from the intensity and noise of the world in a yoga class. As we find in his other works, Cramer highlights a vulnerable irony, which allows the reader to listen to what he will not share with the yoga class: “in my head: I feel in touch with others when afraid / my kids will die before me. Some shared. Not me.”

Though the themes seem to move away from political climate in America, Cramer continues the call to the reader to listen with the first poem of section four, “An Invitation.” “Look through this hole in a stone wall / at the man in his bloated overcoat,” laying bare a malaise of existence, and then deepening this self-deprecation by calling out the self for its lies, like in the couplets of “The Benevolence of the Butcher”:

    Two witches, catty-corner, run
    a crystal shop. Self is the artful

    lies it tells itself, Mind is no more
    than neural chuck
[. . .]

Cramer titles several poems in section four in such a way as to conjure and announce their speakers, such as “Sewage Has Its Say” and “Orphic,” which calls to mind Orpheus with his musical prowess and entrancing voice. “Tinnitus Song” lightly echoes the haunting voices of Cramer’s previous collection from 2012, Clangings, with the line “no remedies. Strategies only.” Like Clangings, where  the speaker must grapple with mental themes, in “Tinnitus Song” the speaker admits there is no cure for the sounds he must endure again and again: “but this needling / sticks in the groove of Psycho’s soundtrack: // mind turned brain; brain, skull.”

This blend of distant speaker and personal speaker juxtaposes in section four with “Two Poems in Memory of Wayne Brown,” the Jamaican poet, professor, and chief editor of Jamaica Observer’s Literary Supplement, among many other accolades; and then with “Bohemia Lies by the Sea,” which adapts Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem, “Böhmen liegt am Meer.” In this last poem of the collection, the speaker becomes energetically overcome by the sea with a final two lines culminating with what moves towards, not what should be listened to, but perhaps, should be rhetorically questioned: “holding and held by nothing, allowed only to watch // the shore of my choice, from the questionable sea.”

Steven Cramer’s Listen serves as command, pleading, response, and vulnerable receptor of his speakers’ observations. Sometimes these roles of the speaker are deeply personal, and at other times they inspire the reader to become an analytical onlooker. We seem to be past and present with the poet, experiencing private moments and disparaging self-commentary with such a relatable tone, one feels compelled to smile, sometimes even laugh, with understanding. Cramer mixes these with political commentary and an artistic investigation of listening in all its forms. Listen calls us to be aware, and in the questioning that occurs from attentiveness, asks us to listen more fully.

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