Steve Scafidi is an immensely talented poet whose fourth collection, The Cabinetmaker’s Window, reveals a sustained interest in addressing the great and eternal themes of poetry—Love, Death, Time, Divinity, Art—and simultaneous willingness to take both material and formal risks. In a poetic landscape preferential to cerebral abstraction, the stylized posturing of ennui, or à la mode politicking, Mr. Scafidi offers a welcome—often-ebullient, occasionally-crass, but markedly uplifting and humble—voice. His tone calls to mind the heartiness of a medieval troubadour; his form and vision, the rough narrative charms of an Anglo-Saxon scop stretching his lyrical legs to tromp with gusto through the real, gritty particulars of the dirt and flesh in which we live.

The particular stomping ground of The Cabinetmaker’s Window is, geographically-speaking, small: Mr. Scafidi’s poems are predominantly set in a woodshop, a home, and the roads that go between. What this focused scope allows for, however, is a concentrated education in place, and one of Mr. Scafidi’s particular preoccupations is in defining how such immersion over a duration shapes us actively and passively, physically and emotionally. In the opening poem, for example, the speaker describes the woodshop where he works and how, in his day-in and day-out presence there, the place itself gets on him:

…Sometimes skunks fight under the floorboards

at night and when you walk in—in the morning
you begin to reek of it and by the end of the day
you are fouled with that deep musk of skunk.

And sometimes sanding a small eucalyptus box
made in China 100 years ago the astringency of
the medicine tree fills the barn and clears your head.

We cook chicken and beans, venison stew and corn
bread and sausage and Bill’s wife sent him to work
today with three shrimps covered in coconut sauce.

But mostly it is coffee in the air or the peppery
sharp odor of sawn walnut that smells purple.
Mahogany dust has little claws that tear your eyes

and grip at your insides…

In The Cabinetmaker’s Window, humans are largely defined by the places they inhabit: we breathe in their air; we take on their scent; our bodies respond to their properties with watery eyes, wrinkled noses, cramping stomachs. And our emotions respond too: with disgust, delight, awe. Nor, apparently, should we want to escape such influence. Firmly in the lineage of poets committed to the adoration of the commonplace—Whitman, Williams, and Crane as well as, more recently, Levine and Levis—Mr. Scafidi is in search of a way to celebrate our entanglement in the world, even in its strangest and ugliest influences. Among the myriad unlikely exigencies he discovers for praise are the whiff of a septic tank, road kill, a mohawked and potbellied carpenter, a robot made of tin cans, and horse dung. More traditionally-lovely (though equally uncommon) details are lauded as well: ink drying on a page, a one-horned deer, brass trophies in the sunlight of a high school atrium, and what is, to my mind, one of the most surprising and delightful of all—“the distance between the turning of a key / and the roar and purr of a diesel truck.” Of course, underlying this drive toward celebration is commemoration: the particular modus operandi of pressing in to the world rather than leaning aloofly away and the near-obsessive desire to catalog, describe, know, and, thereby, somehow, possess or preserve the world are the foils repeatedly offered to the incessant passage of Time. This pursuit becomes the primary organizing principle of the collection, each poem an opportunity for Mr. Scafidi to test, re-test, and find satisfying to varying degrees all the most likely and timeworn antidotes to oblivion: procreation (“Thank-You Wishes for the Wilderness”), material legacy (“The Chisel”), friendships (“Two Cabinetmakers”), and art (“Looking for the Maker’s Name”).

Of all the counters to death that Mr. Scafidi explores though, it is art, perhaps not surprisingly, that appears as the most convincing. Through experimentation in form and syntax, Mr. Scafidi models the likely untold ways poetry can spellbind. There are more than a handful of lyrics in The Cabinetmaker’s Window that—due to adept use of internal rhyme, enjambed lines, a colloquial tone, and a rambling style—sweep the reader up into what feels like a sort of enchantment, allowing us to momentarily forget any time but the metric time of the verse. In particular, the poems “You Should, Said Socrates, Sing a Charm Over Him Every Day Until You Have Charmed Away His Fears,” “Music for the Word Perhaps,” “Lines for the Atrium of a High School,” The Cabinetmaker’s Window,” and, likely my favorite poem in the collection, “Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze,” function in this way. Look, for example, how in this latter poem we are swept up in the tetrameter lines, lifted and set down and lifted again by what I can only describe as a turning or cranking sort of rhythm, one based in internal and slant rhymes that fade in and out just forcefully enough to propel us forward:

“Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze—”

For the deer gut busted open splayed
on the gravel margin of the highway
to remind me and to horrify which are
the same when death comes to say
anything for dying is a song the body
is learning so thank you lord for this
enduring whir of days we ride the way
a chisel carves down deep as it glides
for being is a lathe and we are the turning
curving shape of what I come to praise
so thank you Lord for the edge of light
when the day is honed and all is bright
behind the eyes…

Nevertheless, for all Mr. Scafidi’s excitement and persistence in the project of endurance, there are moments and, indeed, entire poems, where his hopefulness falters, even collapsing entirely. Poems of deep, apparently-unredeemable despair are peppered throughout the collection and provide a counter-balance and necessary, darker undercurrent. In “Triumph of the Jabberwock,” for example, a father holds his stillborn daughter, moving her lifeless limbs as if in a dance—a macabre metaphor for art’s inability to, in any literal way, restore life; in “Song for the Carry-On,” the reader is shown a plane crashing out of the sky as the speaker below stands dumbstruck, unable to find and words of consolation beyond “…it’s OK— // It’s OK”; and in “Driving Around,” as if to acknowledge the rhetorical paucity of language in light of particularly extreme violence and tragedy, we are given the story of a father who has a mental breakdown and murders his son, to which the speaker responds: “There are many things that are never ok. Most. / Don’t ever tell me anything is ok. Don’t ever / tell me nothing.” These moments of seeming resignation, however, though perhaps in one sense a deathblow to the poet’s ambition, are, ultimately, essential to making the collection work as a whole. They give death teeth, making clear that the act of creation as a mode of endurance is more than just an exercise in whimsy. Moreover, they render Mr. Scafidi’s more ebullient moments believable.

If there is a critical bullet Mr. Scafidi will be asked to dodge, it will likely be the charge of sentimentalism. The poet anticipates this, confessing in “Song for the Holy Ghost” that “…Love, you are my only word / it seems. You have made me difficult / to be taken seriously by most.” And indeed there are moments where the particular concoction of images asked to serve as springboard for heightened emotion or revelation are, as the poet Ronald Bottrall has said, “Fused in no emotive furnace.” This is, of course, the risk a poet takes in placing a heavy and central burden on detail and imagery to mean: though such moments in The Cabinetmaker’s Window are rare, I do think of the ultimate image of “This Page,” in which sunlight lingers on a page of verse as the speaker sits among the ruins of his life. Interestingly, the poems that seem to be most likely to be considered fine by contemporary critics—the politically-charged “Wartime” or the condescendingly-terse five-liner “On the Rebel Flag over My Neighbor’s House,” seemed the least comfortable to me in these pages. In a remarkably cohesive collection—a testimony to Mr. Scafidi’s maturity as a poet as well as poet Dave Smith’s editorial skill as the architect behind the Southern Messenger Poets series—these seemed too sarcastic and coy to fit smoothly into Mr. Scafidi’s hopeful and persistently industrious vision.

Nevertheless, as the poet James Dickey—one of the harshest but most consistently, to my mind, correct critics who has ever written—has said that the mark of a poet who will produce work that matters is his ability to sustain and perpetually regenerate enthusiasm. Mr. Scafidi has this trait in spades. In The Cabinetmaker’s Window, Mr. Scafidi appears as a poet who is nearly instantaneously able to absorb the reader into his ultra-sensory, physical, filigreed way of perceiving the world; sell them the dire import of his particular concerns, cares, and loves; and leave them believing verse can itself be a way of creating and sustaining hope. If that is not a way for poetry to help us survive, I’m not sure what is.

—Amber M. Stamper

Amber Stamper

Amber Stamper is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her poetry and critical writing have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Unbound Press, and Allegheny Review. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky and her M.F.A. from the University of Virginia.

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Phillip B. Williams is a Chicago, Illinois native. He is the author of the book of poems Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016). He received scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers Conference and a 2013 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, West Branch and others. Phillip received his MFA in Writing from the Washington University in St. Louis. He is the Co-editor in Chief of the online journal Vinyl and the Emory University Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry for 2015-17.

Cate Lycurgus, Interviews Editor: “My grandfather salted every threshold/ to keep evil from entering his house,” you write in “Of Shadows and Mirrors,” a poem in the fourth section of your collection, continuing:  “I heard salt stinging in an open wound means it’s cleaning/out demons, but maybe crystal mirrors/ are unwelcome, the body never wanting to see its own inner ugly.” So many of the pieces in Thief in the Interior reflect what is wounded and painful on both a personal and societal level; yet crystal has the ability to reflect and, as shards of glass, to cut. As you write on the threshold against evil, perhaps, how do you balance sting and salve?

Phillip Williams: Two parts to my answer: I remember giving a reading once and asking the audience, after a lot of sighs and silence, if they were “alright” so to speak. I am fully aware of how heavy the material in Thief is and for quite some time I had anxiety about it. But what I do know about the book, the poems within, is that they are also very much interested in being beautiful by shaking the expectations of what beauty can mean and can include.

As much as the sting of many of the poems causes discomfort, and rightfully so, there is also the fact that these are poems and that my idea of poetry always rests on the shoulders of questioning beauty; I just so happened not to focus on things typically considered beautiful: death, Blackness, queerness, anger, loneliness, isolation, violence. I’ve heard all of my life that all of those things are ugly and never understood exactly why, especially when so many of those things I openly have as part of who I am.

The second part to my answer: there is within each individual’s idea of what is grotesque his or her own everyday life reflected back, something familiar and therefore both enticing and horrifying. Very few of us are unfamiliar with death, pain, illness, depression and yet so many of us seem far too eager to express discomfort with what makes us feel some kind of sadness. And I think the poems hurt so much because they reflect back the very things we all hate to look at but that we know are in our world and therefore in us.

CL: And they are so beautiful! Which is always subjective, I know, but your goal to shake the expectations of what beauty can mean is crucial, and reminds me of Elaine Scarry’s belief that we can recognize beauty not so much by what it is, but rather by what it compels us to do—revere it, replicate it, share it with others. Thief’s necessarily shared discomfort seems to corroborate its allure. The voicing is complicated though, and I’m drawn to the ways the mouth recurs through these poems. Can you speak to the vehicle of the mouth as an image and the way silence and speech function here?

PW: I suppose I’m interested in who speaks, who gets to speak, and who is silenced. The mouth as a recurring image/symbol is probably—because who really knows—me playing around with agency. The speaker in some of these poems has very limited knowledge and says so by making it clear that he was not present in a particular situation. The poem everyone talks about when they speak with me is “Witness,” which I talk about at length elsewhere so I’ll keep it short here: there were no known witnesses to the murder of Rashawn Brazell, so that poem plays with the idea of witness and speaking for the dead, which I never do. I wanted to make sure that there were no poems in the personified voice of Brazell because he was never allowed to speak for himself. Even in moments of speech there is the possibility of getting it wrong, as language is known to fail.

CL: Yes, that concern is overt in “Witness;” I’m thinking of the point you ask “How to enter a body not mine and speak/with cadence of an activist,” wondering “will I, too, forget my dead brother and turn my head like a page?” This seems to highlight the thin line between silencing marginalized voices by telling their stories, and the impulse toward empathy, witness, or solidarity. Is this balance something you think about as you write? How do the forms your poems take influence this?

PW: I think about it all the time. There are many poets who have no problem with writing in the voice(s) of the dead. I simply cannot do it. For me it becomes an issue of becoming sensational, even manipulative of the material and therefore the reactions of readers. I have no interest in pretending I can even imagine what the dead would say or how they would feel. I think what is more important is critiquing my desire to tell the stories of how the dead became dead. Reflection is key to my interests and informs my formal choices, my rhetorical leans toward the interrogative, and my use of the “I” as a true “I,” and by that I mean writing how I as the writer have these doubts about my interaction with the subject matter.

And thinking about form, I know that repetition is big for me. I think in Thief in the Interior I wanted to make it very clear that my obsessions are present as a haunting. They do not simply come then go or come and stay for a short period of time. They are ever-present and install themselves into the forms by not allowing them to move forward, as with “Inheritance: The Force of Aperture” where the sestina pattern, the spiral of the words repeated, actually moves in reverse in the second half of the third stanza and thereon. Also thinking about how forms themselves repeat. The sonnet is a motif throughout the book.

CL: “Inheritance:  The Force of Aperture” is a poetic feat—to me the reversal seemed to call for a re-visioning of how we see deaths—ostensibly as heirs of a history, but ultimately as continued participants through our viewing (aestheticizing) of them. It’s fascinating how repetition causes new realizations; similarly, while people think of the sonnet as a rigid form, I can’t think of one that has better lent itself to re-invention and splitting open. In fact, the only necessary feature I can come up with is the turn. Many of the sonnets in your crown split midway—what turns or turnings back do these require of readers?

PW: I’m sure the sonnets here operate outside of the use of a classical form and of course do some contemporary reimagining of that form and what it is capable of. I want to speak about how the sonnet as a form is itself a pellet of history, which can arguably be said about all poems, but there is something about the concision and density of the sonnet that reminds me of how so much can happen within a single moment across space. History is dense because it is simultaneous and heterogeneous. My experience of September 11 is not the same as someone living in Phnom Penh or someone living in Tulsa. The sonnet for me moves very quickly across both time and space within a strict limitation of lines and sometimes even stresses. What happens after those 14 lines, the thinking future so to speak, is left unwritten. I enjoy how the sonnet turns away from history because it eventually has to end, unlike history which will be forever as long as there are people.

The sonnets in section III possibly operate in the way that listening to a single song at different points in one’s life operates. The six sonnets in that section that have a division line can be considered the same short poem rewritten in two different ways or being shown at two different angles. They don’t so much turn/arc in my eyes as they do revise one another, communicate with one another. The old saying that there are two sides to every story is very much active in these sonnets. If possible, I would like readers to practice simultaneity by holding on to both halves not as a single unit but as units that coexist and happen concurrently.

CL:  Besides the sonnet/sonetto/little song connection, I love the analogy of sonnets to the experience of a song at different points in life; often listening later illuminates something I hadn’t perceived then, about myself, or the situation at the time. The slipperiness of language and construction of a poem inherently invite multiple readings and angles, but yours summon the poem, the speaker (a speaker of two minds, often) and the reader into conversation together in a more overt way. Who do you write to or for, and after finishing a first collection, has the angle from which you view these poems changed?

PW: I don’t write to or for anyone. I do want younger readers to read my book, undergraduates in particular, but I did not write the book with that age-range in mind. I want them to read it because this is the book I wish I had when I was starting off as a writer. I wanted so much to read about contemporary issues and I didn’t even know it. I’ve been told that my poems are actually very challenging to read both theme-wise and stylistically. I never considered myself to be a poet who required a high level of thinking to process, and in many ways I still don’t. I know my work can be demanding, but that to me is not a sign of “difficulty” rather a sign of faith in my readers whomever they may be.

I am so far from these poems now. It is strange to read them at readings when I know that I have other poems that I desperately want to work on and still cannot get out. I’ve been sitting on ideas for so long, nurturing them in my mind and reading from the book is something that I am beyond grateful for though it feels like a distraction from that nurturing. I see these poems in Thief in the Interior to be only the beginning of what I want to explore. If I had any fears at all it would be that readers will not be willing to follow me as I grow and change as a writer. That, of course, won’t stop me from doing so.

CL: As it shouldn’t! I have similar fears, and am perhaps too aware of what my poems are or are not offering to readers. Since you say you don’t write to or for anyone, what does poetry do for you? What compels you to write, and is there a substitute?

PW: I used to sing and dance and draw. Writing took all three of those out, haha. I write poems because I cannot imagine doing anything else. It’s just that simple. I have a lot on my mind and getting it out helps me feel more at peace. It just so happens that there are people in the world who enjoy my work and I appreciate that. I am grateful to be able to make some kind of change in the world with my writing.

I write book reviews to bring awareness to a text that I’ve read and felt moved by in some way. I don’t review books I don’t like; it’s a waste of time and also, why would I want to bring attention to work I wish didn’t exist?

I write essays to explore a thought, an argument, and/or an inquiry. I don’t write many essays. It isn’t my favorite genre but I have a few in the works. They are rather long and finding a proper home for them will be taxing when I am finished, but I’ll worry about that when I get there. It’s been a great experience to just try this mode of writing.

CL:  Oh yes, if I could not write I would save myself a lot of trouble, that’s for sure, but I can’t! I haven’t written many reviews but do read them and appreciate the dialogues they begin. What are your feelings on the responsibilities of writers, as participants in both literary and non-literary communities?

PW: For me it depends on the writer and what he or she has set as personal goals. What has she said she wants or needs to do, and is she fulfilling those duties? My own self-imposed responsibilities are to write honestly, to engage with truth however it comes to me, to openly self-interrogate, and to make a lot of room for others to write and share their own stories. I am a big believer in curating work with the idea of going for younger and lesser-known writers. I believe in editing work and championing work without king-making.

Speaking of king-making—that is something that really bothers me. It’s not new that there are, in every generation, favorites, but mercy it’s so obvious and lazy when people latch on to a single writer and decide for everyone else that this writer is the next big thing.  And with most situations like that people tend to clamor around that person or those people regardless of how mediocre their writing is in comparison to others. It boggles my mind and I try to steer my gaze away from all of that. I believe in subjectivity, yes, but I do not believe in a hoarding of resources within vetted writers. There are far too many talented writers and far too few resources to be handing out everything to the same six people under the guise of objective excellence. I always tell myself if that ever happens to me I would make some noise. We all need the money but “Hey, there is a writer over there who y’all need to be talking to. Stop being lazy. Do research. Read more widely. Thank you!” I always want to put other writers on.

CL:  I try to read as widely as possible for the sheer reason that I find myself so much more alive through letting different forms and experiences and rhythms infiltrate my being. I think of your lines in “Visitation:” A man could live in the blur/ of a hundred hearts, could learn to tame/ the eager clapper, which is loneliness/ testing the marrow and waking what’s within:/ scatter-song, blind and coming on like skin.” While our own work emerges from that clapper, what comes on, we hope, tolls for others. To circle back to the idea of beauty—that something beautiful (and I don’t mean in conventional senses, either) leads us to want to create it, to replicate it, to share it—I don’t think anyone would argue for a world with less beauty, less inspiration, less movies, even! All the more baffling to me then that there could be too much poetry, or not enough accolade to go around. How do you navigate between the desire to champion many voices and sources of poetry, and to have your own voice heard?

PW: I think if we leave it up to other people to do what they will with our work and spend our own time championing the work of others, then it all balances out. I know that if I have a poem published that it will be read. It may not be read by thousands or even hundreds of people, but it will get read. Twitter and Facebook make that tremendously easy. So when I make posts I do sometimes share things related to my own work but most of the time I am letting people know about who else is out there. Maybe others will do the same. That’s also out of my control.

CL:  I know you have a steady online presence, both in terms of Twitter and Facebook and with editing for Vinyl. What are some of the benefits and pitfalls of social media with respect to poetry’s dissemination, and how do you envision it shaping the way we encounter or experience poems in the future?

PW:  I think it has been mostly positive. Access has been granted where once there was very little unless you had a subscription to journals. There has also been increased facility in reaching international audiences, which has been a blessing for Vinyl. I am always curious to see where Vinyl has found its readership and it is indeed worldwide with readers in Kenya, Australia, the UK, and Nigeria. I love that and hope hat we reach even further and even more people.

Some pitfalls are oversaturation. The poem that someone posted from journal-x is also posted by another someone than another then another. It’s great for the poet and even the journal but it has limits. It can be terribly annoying seeing the same poet over and over again, and it begins to show how limited other journals are in their selection processes. You see quite easily who is popular and who is “hot” at the moment instead of getting a grasp on a kind of landscape view of the poetry community. Some of it is unavoidable. Some of it is about timing. And some of it is about editors needing to read more widely and, you know, actually edit.

CL:  That’s a great point—that the moment doesn’t necessarily indicate the landscape. And that one can overplay the album of a poet so to speak—something to be aware of as we as readers and editors train our gaze and praise. I’m most interested in the poems that touch me not for a spell but so deep they continue to well up in unexpected places or ways. Say you met someone who had never encountered a poem before, ever. What one would you give him or her?

PW: The one poem I would give is probably a poem by Lucille Clifton. I am not sure which one and it might not matter, as they are all so good. But I think her economy of language and her precision would act as a good introduction to poetry. Maybe her poem “Miss Rosie,” particularly for its attention to humanizing a character, possibly a real person, and for the way it ends: “i stand up/ through your destruction/ i stand up”

CL:  Thank you Philip!

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Third Coast, Gulf Coast Online, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Cate currently lives and teaches south of San Francisco, California; for more information, visit catelycurgus.com.

 

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Reflection in the High Varnish of a Little White Lie: A Cento

April 18, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Shara Lessley on 32 Poems 13.2 It’s always a little sad when the latest round of our marginalia series concludes and we finally put an issue to bed, but this week’s entry offers a particularly lovely way to say goodbye. Here, Shara Lessley gives us a cento composed of language she’s mined from 32 Poems […]

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On Being Alone Together

April 11, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Michael Bazzett on “Faith” by Jacques Rancourt Sometimes I walk into the cool dark of a chapel and I can almost smell God. Or my memory of what it felt like to believe. Perhaps it’s the same thing. I don’t know. But I like to spend time in the asking, and this where Jacques Rancourt’s “Faith” took […]

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Intimate Solitariness

March 28, 2016

Contributor’s Marginalia: Shira Dentz on “Wild the Sea” and “Out of the Sea” by Aaron Krol While reading Aaron Krol’s poems in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of 32 Poems, I felt Elizabeth Bishop’s influence in their concrete objective description/images, and perhaps too in their evocation of a sea landscape. I was with the poems as they unravelled—feeling their sensations. […]

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