EILEEN TABIOS Engages
FLUTES AND TOMATOES: A MEMOIR WITH POEMS by Wade Stevenson
(BlazeVOZ Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2015)
The Color Symphonies by Wade Stevenson
(BlazeVOZ Books, Buffalo, N.Y., 2014)
Wade Stevenson has accomplished something that would not seem difficult to pull off, but is actually quite difficult—I know because I, for one, have attempted something similar and didn’t succeed. What’s also brilliant, though, about FLUTES AND TOMATOES: A MEMOIR WITH POEMS is that Stevenson effected such charisma to the work that I, for one, will attempt this structure anew!
I’m referring to how the book is divided into two sections, with the first a prose memoir about the author’s summer in his artist’s studio in Paris trying to get over “the loss of [his] great love.” The second section are poems written during that same period as he tried to overcame this loss. There are poems that refer to the same matters as sections of the prose excerpt, and it’s pretty nifty to compare how the same topic is addressed by two different forms.
“Because—make no mistake—those tomatoes possessed a deep, rich, vibrant reality. The more I looked at then, the more real they became; they were as real to me as my own skin. Wild thoughts came crashing through my mind. For example, could it be that I had a kind of death wish for the flesh of the tomato, and my flesh, to become one? I meant in a symbolic way, of course, but even in that way, could such a union ever be achieved? Could the artist become one with the model? Could the perceiver become one with the perceived? I burst out laughing. What a crazy fool I was! To even think that a man and a tomato could find harmony together! Could they even find a way of sharing the same living space?”
—from the memoir
THE TOMATO AND I
If the tomato is the sheath
I am the knife
Slowly I plunge
Into the soft red body
Then I am no longer the knife
I have become what I cut
Quivering, I vibrate in the heart
Of the drawn and quartered tomato
It’s part of the genius of the work that Stevenson used a meditation on tomatoes for coping with and understanding his distress. Thus, the work is not didactic but relies on the quality of the writing, about which there is much to admire. The prose sings, albeit in distress—grief, hunger and longing, among others. And because it is also philosophical, it avoids mawkishness and also effectively presents the (what seems to me) scaffolding of footnoted works which he read to help understand his personal grief but also universal grief. Here’s an example with the footnoted reference:
In sum, what I was trying to do was to verbalize my experience of an external object(7). I had arbitrarily chosen a tomato. To that I later added a flute, which my lover and great love of my life had played. If I had been an artist, like Giorgio Morandi(8), with paint brush and easel I might have labored tirelessly to reproduce on canvas a still life showing a few tomatoes next to a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and a flute. Or I might just have been content with trying to render the fleshly reality of a few well-chosen tomatoes. Once I dreamt of a large, almost monumental, tomato with two cherub-like figures pushing it across an open space. I could have made a bronze sculpture out of that. After my death I would have been known as “the artist who worked with tomatoes.” In that long, lonely summer I spent in Paris, it amused me to think that I truly was lord and master of one domain: I was the emperor of tomatoes.
(7) See T.S. Eliot’s idea of the “objective correlative”, an object adequate to emotion.
(8) Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), concentrated almost exclusively on still lifes, depicting the same familiar bottles and vases over and over again.
The overall effect is captivating and provided much reading pleasure.
My enjoyment of FLUTES AND TOMATOES made me search out some of Stevenson’s other books, and I came onto his poetry collection, The Color Symphonies. Here we see some of the same themes explored in FLUTES AND TOMATOES, as indicated by one of its epigraphs:
“Color has taken hold of me. I no longer need to strive after it. Color and I are one.”
I could use Paul Klee’s statement, I thought, as one standard by which to perceive the collection’s effectiveness through how its poems may be color versus simply writing about it! In this sense, many of the poems succeed, such as this charming poem where various colors become not just alive but lively!
The sky is hammered with blue.
Here is a gate called the moon through
Which you can walk into silver.
We rocked in a rowboat of yellow,
Whirred through patches of white.
We walked alone in the light.
We tried to separate the shimmerings.
Clouds stretched out like chorals
As we shook in colors like a dog
Leaping out of water, full of splash and sun.
There’s also a welcome depth to the collection; it’s not a facile exploration and such may be gleaned from the titles of the four sections hearkening the fullness of symphony:
I. Andante. Nobilmente e semplice
II. Allegro molto
IV. Lento – Allegro
Here’s one that’s on color but also about more:
BLUE YELLOW AND RED
Blue, yellow and red
Having signed a non-compete
Cannot be scattered,
Only raised to different
Pitches of brightness.
They never seek to outshine each other.
But when conjoined, close, not far
Always manage to harmonize
We perceive them as they are
Not as perhaps they yearn to be.
To explore color, of course, inherently means to explore light. What a pleasure it was to move from this epigraph—
“Light is not the subject. It is the revelation.”
—to this vibrant poem:
Liquor of the day,
Longing for you—
All the brightness,
The chaos of colors—
I came out, screaming.
Thankfully—as I look forward to future re-reads—The Color Symphonies is a thick book (284 pages) with four sections: I anticipate their radiance. I leave you with its lovely last poem:
Waves of snow-driven whiteness
The black furrowed fields.
White on black, black on white.
Mourning becomes the winter night.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work. I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS received a review by Zvi A. Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; by Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; and by Allen Bramhall in Tributary. Her experimental biography AGAINST MISANTHROPY: A LIFE IN POETRY received a review by Tom Hibbard in The Halo-Halo Review, Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web and Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source. SUN STIGMATA also received a review by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field. Recent releases are the e-chap DUENDE IN THE ALLEYS as well as INVENT(ST)ORY which is her second “Selected Poems" project; while her first Selected THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, INVEN(ST)ORY focuses on the list or catalog poem form. A key poem in INVENT(ST)ORY was reviewed by John Bloomberg-Rissman in The Halo-Halo Review, and the book itself was reviewed by Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source and Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com