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spacer.gif   TOP DOG: KEVIN STEIN
Posted by : cj on Friday, October 26, 2007 - 01:05 PM
Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines .
American Ghost Roses
by Kevin Stein, Poet Laureate of Illinois
University of Illinois Press
Reviewed by C. J. Laity

Kevin Stein's American Ghost Roses is a down to earth tour de force. As I bathed in the highly personal, sometimes dark, often witty, always entertaining flow of verse in this book, I got the idea that it could have been written by someone I hung out with years ago, when I was growing up in Illinois, because it is filled with white boy nostalgia:

Dig how Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" electrifies
as improbably as Khrushchev's shoe thumping
the podium, the heel threatening to "bury" us.

(from "In the Nuclear Age")

The effectiveness of Stein's voice is a little scary. I felt as if he was standing right beside me, pointing things out, as I read his poetry. Then he got into my airplane of a brain and took control of the cockpit, gracefully guiding me through vivid environments. Stein's poetic voice is commanding but natural; it is an authority that produces stark images without resorting to laborious description, such as in the example of this vantage point:

"Face it, you at the wrong place at the wrong
time, brother." He said brother. Through cracked lens,
we might've been—his face pieced together
as Picasso knew before the first war,

(from "An American Tale of Sex and Death")

Stein's poems often hit a little too close to home, when he deals with serious subject matter such as domestic violence or suicide. In these poems he creates an unnerving tension that leads up to startling revelations that made me flinch. But Stein always remains optimistic and he evens the tone of this book out with an abundance of lighter poems, throwing in a dash of pop culture and seasoning his work with brand names (Drano, Saran-wrap, Levi-Strauss) to make it more personal and to prove that he lives on the same planet that we live on.

What pleasure is there for you,
rusted Sears brand full of crushed Pabst cans?

(from "To Wheelbarrows")

It's apparent that Kevin Stein had a lot of fun writing this book. It's as if he wanted to share some inside jokes with anyone wise enough to recognize them, when he threw in a performance poem when I least expected it, or when he made light of his own writing process, or when a found poem disassembled into stream of consciousness, or when he said something profound about a cantaloupe. He whimsically plays with the sounds of words, creating the illusion that his precision is effortless; take for example these quotes from various poems: "the deaf man whumps the stumps of his palms" or "Say the shocked doc's / plastic shunt salvages your burnt gullet" or "Let's mouth the hour's round bower of vowels" or how about:

Because nothing's subtle about October, I don't want
     to die—
candles aflame, that little tent, flowers and shovels slick
     with rain—
though surely this day bears seduction inevitable as the lover's
     champagne glance,
raspberry beret tossed atop the bedpost we tumbled across
     and in,

(from "Love Poem with Knife and last Cut Zinnia")

Everyone sees the world in their own unique way, but few people have the talent to make me see the world the way they see it, like Stein does when he shows me the pop music group The Monkees:

The humor was slapstick, their musical interludes improbable
     as those Bing and Bob concocted to appease the WWII
homefront, but this time it's Vietnam, a moral quandary,
     so the guys' striped bellbottoms and polka-dotted poets' shirts
implied ambivalence toward the military industrial complex

(from "Upon Blowing Our Chance to Meet the Poet Laureate, Who's Probably a Nice Guy")

Each poem in this book contains an abundance of artistic wealth that is hard to consume with one read, even though the work is usually written in a crisp narrative style. On the first read I enjoyed the voice of the poem; on the second read I enjoyed the imagery; and on a careful third read the story of the poem unfolded. American Ghost Roses also inspired me to do some research. For example, after reading the poem "To Bob Marley's Toe" I anxiously searched the internet and discovered that Bob Marley did indeed die of toe cancer.

American Ghost Roses took me places. Often launching from the link of a commonplace object, such as a furnace, a penny or a banana, Stein led me on a journey of swift turns while he juggled the complex with the universal and compared the grim realities of life to the beauty of art. Notice here how he tells three stories in one single sentence:

"Sweet Mother of God," the curse wings fire
from a man whose hand's been slammed
in his truck door, his language blue and wounded—
as was the Virgin herself, blue not only in sadness
but also in dress, her robes a color not unlike these
indigo buntings we're returning to the flood plain
farmed thirty years by a salt magnate now gone,
his dirty levy, too ...

(from "Reintroductions")

Kevin Stein creates equilibrium between language and imagery and through his words we discover the largeness of small things. I give American Ghost Roses two big quills up.

--CJ Laity

To order a copy of American Ghost Roses, Click here.

Go back to the other Top Dogs.

**We hope you found the information on this page useful. needs your help. We are holding a fundraising drive in order to stay online. There are two ways that you can help: Click here to offer a financial gift or click here to order the new book by Press.

Note: Here is a review of Kevin Stein's new book, American Ghost Roses.

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