Weekly Prose Feature: “Tethered to Nothing: A Review of Fowling Piece by Heidy Steidlmayer” by Caitlin Doyle

April 12, 2013

Heidy Steidlmayer’s poetry explores the uneasy relationship between existence and its opposite. Whether writing about romantic love, religion, mythology, illness, or motherhood, Steidlmayer often confronts the prospect of annihilation. Her debut collection Fowling Piece abounds with provocative negatives; the “nonimage” found on a brain scan, the muffled noise within an MRI chamber that verges on being “nonsound,” the “not-seeing” of an eye behind an eye-patch. In the book’s title piece, the speaker describes learning to hunt as a child:

The pull of guns I understand,
my father taught me hand on hand
how death is. Life asserts.
(Best take it like a man.)

I shot a dove, the common sort
and mourned not life but life so short
that gazed from death as if unhurt.
And I had nothing to report.

The unexpected and chilling last line registers a theme that pervades Steidlmayer’s work: the possibility that a human being can confront both life and death and ultimately find “nothing to report.” In the world of Fowling Piece, waves break and “come to nothing.” At an insect exhibit, the “empyrean opens / itself to nothing.” A woman irons until she’s pressed “each crease / breathless, to nothing.” “Agonal” explores the forces that threaten the “thereness” of a loved one’s body and, in “The Mask,” the speaker undergoes treatment for brain cancer, suspecting that she may be “tethered to nothing.”

Steidlmayer’s poems orbit around the tension between the concrete and the intangible. Her work derives considerable force from the fact that, when she finds “nothing to report,” she reports on it anyway, reaching into and beyond the void. For Steidlmayer, words act as the tether that binds “thereness” and nothingness so that each can give definition to the other.

Throughout Fowling Piece, Steidlmayer demonstrates a level of technical accomplishment that suggests a belief in crafted language as a potential antidote to nihilism. In “Limbo,” she writes:

Because there is nothing there is that is not
worth dying for, we wait until our bodies take on

the stubborn musculature of sculpture, feel
where form, like everything fixed, gives

off a kind of grief

Steidlmayer masterfully breaks lines so as to simultaneously emphasize them as discrete units and as integral parts of a whole poem. “Because there is nothing there is that is not” both connects to the ensuing lines and stands alone as a statement that embodies the poem’s larger themes. The line, considered on its own, engages the idea that there’s nothing in existence that isn’t also essentially non-existent—“there is nothing there is that is not”—by nature of the fact that life and death may, as the poems in Fowling Piece so often speculate, contain no meaning. When examined in the context of “Limbo” as a whole, the line and the line break work together here to point toward a notion prevalent throughout Fowling Piece: the annihilation that threatens existence also gives it its value.

Many of Steidlmayer’s lines, when parsed like the first line of “Limbo,” bring to mind Keats’ idea that poets should strive to “load every rift with ore.” Compression comprises one of her most striking gifts as a poet. In “Limbo,” when she says that “form, / like everything fixed, gives / off a kind of grief,” she speaks not only of the human body’s form but also of the role that form plays in poetry at large. She packs reality’s sprawl into such tight and finely honed spaces that the pressure generated by its enclosure within her language often “gives off a kind of grief.”

Her use of formal restriction frequently heightens the impact of emotionally charged subject matter, as in the short two-stanza poem “The Coracle”:

I set you adrift in withies and pitch,
stripped of all sign I would know you by,
cradled in Oxskin, nursed by the gorse,
the wind dissolving your cries.

A bird on the mountain, a cork
to the sea, a far-off story of shore –
you float the salt-dark, a speck
vanishing the moment it’s more.

The poem’s exploration of containment, as the vessel sets forth to fend for itself, finds embodiment in the way the language’s form strives to contain the emotional largess of the subject matter. “The Coracle” also displays Steidlmayer’s consummate skill with assonance. She sends aural echoes through the poem with the “i” in “adrift,” “withies,” “pitch,” “stripped,” “Oxskin,” “dissolving,” and “vanishing,” just one example of a vowel sound that repeats to hypnotic effect in the “The Coracle.” Steidlmayer’s ability to create sonic resonance with vowels is so notable and varied that it sometimes calls to mind the dense assonance of poets like Lord Alfred Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while at other times chiming with the work of more contemporary masters of subtle vowel-music like William Carlos Williams and Sylvia Plath.

Another defining feature of Steidlmayer’s work, as evidenced in “The Coracle,” is her acuity with rhyme. When she writes in rhyme, she often plies a mixture of perfect rhyme and slant rhyme, as if to constantly remind readers that language’s form can almost—but not fully— control and shape the world it endeavors to contain. Interestingly, “The Coracle” ends with a perfect rhyme between “shore” and “more,” the only pair of perfect end rhymes in the piece. This suggests Steidlmayer’s desire to reach for the comfort of control, closure, and comprehensibility at the very moment when the poem most drifts beyond her reach; the coracle (and, by implication, the poem itself) becomes “a speck / vanishing the moment it’s more.”

Steidlmayer implies here that, although language only gestures toward containing the unknown, the gesture might be all the more beautiful because it cannot entirely achieve its aim. The last line of “The Coracle” hits on an essential element of Steidlmayer’s art. She confronts the way that meaning vanishes the moment one tries too forcibly to either see or fabricate “more” of it. Her work thrives in the space between the human desire to know the universe and the human inability to ever fully do so.

When Steidlmayer falters, which is rarely, it usually occurs when a poem doesn’t “vanish” the “moment it’s more,” when she seems too bent on wrenching a definable something out of the nothingness that both intrigues and terrifies her. In “Pulling Up the Lawn Mushrooms,” she invites us to see a subtle parallel between the activity of removing mushrooms from a lawn and the process of transforming the world into language. But the final image of the mushrooms—“the small ones lift their long throats from the thatch / and whisper a thousand assurances”—seems like too neat a conclusion for a poet who so frequently acknowledges that turning the world into words rarely produces mere assurances.

Fowling Piece abounds with so many skilled and memorable poems that one almost never catches Steidlmayer stumbling. Against the grain of much contemporary poetry, her work achieves considerable strength and distinction because she embraces artifice without embarrassment. Steidlmayer often layers her poems with such a density of alliteration that her language seems to revel in calling attention to itself as language. In “Thistles,” she describes thistles as “clocks fully struck / in fields of fading flowers – / when the fires of summer come.” The repeated “f” sounds escalate as the poems progresses: “…famished stalks in full gale / that begin their telling once / all forms of telling fail.” Steidlmayer also relishes mixing levels of diction in a way that makes her readers subtly aware of language as a crafted medium. “Couples,” one of the most powerful pieces in the book, opens with a section titled “Cutlery,” in which her adeptness at blending varied registers of diction shines:

Midnight, the knives throw
shadows with showy precision
through my hesitant silhouette.

Old umbrage has brought me here,
unharmed, near missed, where
the thrown blade was your own,
untoward and very fast.

Steidlmayer captures the sharpness of the speaker’s emotional pain through the colloquial immediacy of phrases like “the knives throw / shadows.” Yet Steidlmayer’s language also achieves an effect mimetic of the speaker’s need to seek protection from that pain. Formal and distancing words like “umbrage” and “untoward” show the speaker’s desire to blunt, control, and intellectualize the hurt. The last line in particular, with its skillful combination of high diction in “untoward” and vernacular speech in “very fast,” typifies the tonal prowess that characterizes Fowling Piece. Steidlmayer’s decision to end with “very fast” implies that the speaker cannot truly distance or shield herself from the knives.

Steidlmayer’s vocabulary varies as widely as her diction. She frequently sends readers to the dictionary. Her poems abound with unusual words like “faience,” “orphrey,” “almoner,” “gloriole,” “echolalic,” and “lanthorne,” as well as an extensive lexicon of scientific terminology pertaining both to nature and to the world of modern medicine. Steidlmayer’s passion for attention-getting language, her dexterous use of rhyme and meter, her appetite for mixing diction registers, and her love of dense assonance and alliteration distinguish Fowling Piece as a unique debut collection. She wants the readers of Fowling Piece to never completely forget that, when encountering her poems, they interact with crafted objects made out of language. Steidlmayer highlights the materiality of words not to point at herself and say “look how skilled I am,” but rather to point at language itself and say “look at what can be done with it.”

In “Three Daughters,” readers find an image that powerfully resonates with the larger thematic concerns of the book. Steidlmayer describes dressing one of her daughters in a turtleneck:

I am pulling a blue turtleneck
on my second daughter,
her head comes up and out
as if she were rising from a drain.

She looks at me in relief and says,
I was gone.

The young child feels dislocated, erased, and temporarily annihilated – I was gone – and she re-emerges into the regular world with relief. Steidlmayer enters again and again into a space where both she and her readers feel “gone.” In “The Eye-Patch,” she describes how the patch tricks her palsied eye into “not-seeing as it sees / in the round sea of its dark cup: the mind in its weedy prominence / opening like a terrible mouth.” The patch both turns her eye into a “not-seeing” organ surrounded by blackness and reteaches her imagination to “see” in an entirely new way. Immersed in a nether region of erased vision, the mind opens “like a terrible mouth.” In the unforgettable poems of Fowling Piece, Heidy Steidlmayer presses our ears to that “terrible mouth” so that we can experience language’s capacity to reach toward filling the abyss.

—Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin DoyleCaitlin Doyle’s poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, The Threepenny Review, Boston Review, Black Warrior Review, Measure, Best New Poets 2009, and many others. She has received residency fellowships at a variety of artists’ colonies, including the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She has held the Writer-in-Residence post at St. Albans School and the Emerging Writer-In-Residence position at Penn State University, Altoona. Her recent honors include the Amy Award in Poetry through Poets & Writers Magazine and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry through the Sewanee Writers Conference. This upcoming fall, she will hold a residency fellowship as a Writer-In-Residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT. She is currently at work toward the completion of her first book-length poetry manuscript.

Each Friday we will publish a new essay, review, or interview for the 32 Poems Weekly Prose Feature, edited by Emilia Phillips. If you have any questions or comments about the series, please contact Emilia at emiliaphillips@32poems.com. 

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