John Steffler is the kind of poet who likes to burrow into a landscape’s least beautiful recesses. Once inside, he’s an unusual tenant, his impulses anything but those of a mystic. When he’s in the kind of terrain that inspires his poems—the rock-strewn topography of Newfoundland, say, or the coasts of the Maritime Provinces—he inhabits them with detachment, lingering only momentarily over wind-carved knobs of wood and lichen-covered stone.
Nature, to him, is nothing more than a mixture of minerals and chemicals duplicated ad infinitum by indifferent science. With a secularist’s empathy, he’ll turn over a stone and admire its riddled underside, seeing nothing more than the artifacts that will be made of it: “Hooks, tongs, helmets, mallets, cleavers, awls…”—the tools used by big-handed men.
Nature for him is a kind of assembly line, dully and dutifully providing the common objects of daily life. “Tell me how else to deal with the world!” For Steffler, it’s not a question, but an irrefutable exclamation. When he describes nature’s processes, he sees them in purely mechanical terms:
Frost causes rock to boil—wedging ice into cracks, it
splits stones, then slips its water blades deeper in,
levers them, spades the gravel up in rolling domes.
His descriptions have a somber felicity, and are the more penetrating for their precision, their refusal of anything less than their own integrity. Steffler sees himself as having a job to do, which is to meticulously dismember Pantheism’s withered body.
Steffler saves his real sympathies for the living, for the humans he’s loved, for those whose hold on life has begun to slip away. In a moving sequence titled “Once,” he evokes the sorrow and confusion of his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. He structures the sequence with a sonata-like form of repetition, overlap, modulations of pace, and moods that range from pathos to humor. The result is a stark testimony that honors the unavoidable suffering that comes with old age. Observing the tides of his mother’s consciousness lapping to near stillness, he writes:
She never grieves for herself, never
stands apart disowning or lamenting
the ruin, but sometimes terrors sweep
through her, weightless spinning and inner
sleets, and she sits shaking, calling out that
she’s falling, and my father or I hold her
trying to save her from deep space.
The struggle for this kind of dignity is not nature’s to fight, Steffler implies. For the human, though, it’s the test that continuously defines one’s progress in the search for grace, the courage that ultimately vindicates the claim that to be human is to possess a soul. His own preference is to reject the romantic in favor of the more difficult emotions, especially the ones required to warrant the dignity of deep love.
Lookout is a long book, perhaps too long for a book of poetry that isn’t the collected work of its author. Readers of Lookout should persevere, though; arguably, its best section is its last. Prosaically titled “Colonial Building Archives,” it has some of Steffler’s strongest writing, and stands as one of his most imaginative forays. The sequence begins with the poet sifting through boxes of photographs taken in late 19th-century Newfoundland. As the poet takes up individual photographs, he simultaneously evokes them and reinvents them. Like a painter using a photograph as a palimpsest for a new creation in a different medium, Steffler uses language to coat these photographs with additional layers of meaning that alter their fundamental reality. He angles himself from the photographs so as to make each one a piece of a turning kaleidoscope. The reader hears the pieces of crystal slide over each other as the pages turn, and sees a different world with every view. The sequence doesn’t lend itself to excerpting, unfortunately. It must be read as a whole to appreciate its panoramic magic.
Steffler’s power as a poet comes as much from what he rejects as what he embraces. Readers will find few concessions to sentiment in this book. His faithfulness to place often forces him into austerities, but he enriches them with the sharpness of an unsparing eye. Most of all, he knows where he must stand in order to see things most clearly:
From my unwinding whorl I’m looking
through your night sky at forming stars.
Inside these I can almost see smaller stars.
Roger Sauls lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His most recent book of poems is The Hierarchies of Rue from Carnegie Mellon University Press.