S. A. Stepanek, Three, Breathing, Wave Books, 2006.

Cynthia Arrieu-King

[Review Guidelines]

I was drawn in by the prospect of a) a book-length poem about b) God that reminds the reader / me of c) Whitman d) Blake (hot dog!) and e) the Bible. I was pleasantly reassured by the fact that this book doesn't bother with roman numerals, labeled cycles, elaborate or mathematical systems, titles, epigraphs to set off themes, etc. It simply goes for 89 pages in a measured, shifting, but never pausing prayer. Shame, worship, acceptance, travel, and mutation appear to be larger movements of a poem that moves in rhizomatic fashion from one notion to the next. Stepanek keeps the poems varied and systematic enough to, indeed, breathe its tercets from longer to shorter stanzas, larger to smaller notions of the divine, the full and replete versus the diminished and ashamed. There's lots of oxygen here, swelling the abstract and, to a much lesser degree, lighting up the rarely seen quotidian. The result carries the reader through intense and rarified incantations, one after the other. They sometimes stop short as if the breath weren't enough to articulate the whole thought. But precisely edited and carefully arranged, Stepanek's artistry helps meld the gorgeous with the accidental or haphazard. Everything is divine, and everything is an enunciation that creates, the sweep of stanzas seem to say.
      The first poetic ancestors that come to mind are Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg, and the Bible. It's sort of a commentary against this particular reader that these influences come in this order, particularly given the unequivocally vatic and spiritual nature of the piece. But the invocations of "I am" as an incantation layer and transmute from the Biblical abstract to a linguistic play that carries its verbal cargo variously. Sometimes reaching for abstraction on tip toe, Stepanek succeeds in illuminating it. He also tries to touch down into the everyday with what can sometimes seem like a strange lack of resonance or sense. The reader gets the feeling she's in the middle of a slowly evolving and changing cyclone of utterance and impulses, gorgeously visual and rarified.
      Here the earthly, the social, the political grit that always served as the primer of William Carlos Williams', Ginsberg's and Whitman's canvases, and the sheer despair turning to personal victory that Ginsberg allowed, feels at least half burned away. At times, the leap across the verbal canyons between overall sense and a particular line made me feel like Wile E. Coyote slamming into the cliff and sliding down, not making it. But on returning to the difficult stanzas, I was surprised. Perhaps one's mental energy is not used to 89-page marathons. Fresh attention yields beautiful statements and transformations of the "I." Here's a leap that didn't work for me, then did:

I am the circumspection and the
Light at the end of the hill
Hosanna in peels by the side
Of the road

The extreme mix of the everyday and the heraldic can stump. But eventually, Blake shows his face where the lived lives of the above-mentioned poets don't. Vision and angel voices, praise and light anchored down gently by "the side of the road," is a gorgeous oxygen-burning stanza. Here's another stanza that required more than one reading:

I am ashamed before the Great
quadruplication of north twice over
calling itself beloved.

I think quad and twice got me. But on second thought, coming in the midst of Stepanek reading his long luxurious stanzas aloud, this particular stanza could be humorous in the way Ginsberg was often humorous, not taking so seriously this angelic discursion, lovingly mocking the human mind's limits with divinity's size. Often Stepanek offers a kind of revised version of Biblical verse that instructs the reader further on how to read these shifting yet connected stanzas:

I am the great smooth curve, the I am
the I am that I am.

There's travel and motion afoot in this curve, this displacement of the name or near-name of God. It helps propel the poem forward, both as something to be said, and something that moves across a long thin canvas of attention, like an eternal frieze.
      Where Whitman varied his imagery across America's geography and classes, this prayer varies across levels of abstraction. Stepanek refers to the kitchen and the garage. A lot. On first reading, these two nouns feel like a blip in this consciousness, out of place, probably a mistake, perhaps even breaking the tenuous spell of sense. Eventually, a generous reading would find garage and kitchen repeated at moments that make garage and kitchen feel like something someone is recalling in eternity, vaguely. The queer resonance of the familiar in the eternal mind shows how small it is compared with the universe, and the abstractions help the reader appreciate the grandest scales:

Before becoming mute, I speak with
Anonymity, and hear myself even as
I-am heard: ma ma mai ma ma ma ma

Before-becoming lame, I walk with an old
Woman limping, collecting cans
And jars, leaving three tracks.

I bow above becoming grammar, as
An angel on the waves between
The kitchen and garage.

In this third stanza, the speaker affirms a position above language, looking down on it as an angel. Kitchen and garage accrue a glancing meaning as the place where the human life is stored (garage) and the region where creation happens for a humble mind (kitchen). In standing so clear of life's immersions, Stepanek posits a true angel's thinking, a big mind, big prayer, sometimes flawed with randomness, or the amnesia that eternal life might necessitate. Sometimes, it works to keep the feelings high and pure. Eventually, Stepanek nails down the ascentionist's recollection of "garage" with a definition of sorts:

I am ashamed of this deception:
within the imagination, the gray dress of
the garage,

This deceiver: boxes fall and fold and
trash cans cinch themselves

with empty incantations, stack their
words in temples made with multiple


Stepanek's major achievement is finding a form that can evolve, imitate breathing, and constantly gesture toward the divine, though he doesn't necessarily commit to one Old Testament God, one Messiah, or one pissed Trickster. I admire its ambition, its length, its re-interpretations of the Bible as new language and ancient language simultaneously. I think it starts as a robust spell of lyric and incantatory momentum, but then shape-shifts into a slowly re-collected vision of reality, accumulating meanings by multiple appearances of objects, angles, readings. There is delightful work and artistry in this book, and much to pore and ponder, to re-read of what the poet's mind intended: also of what "I am that I am" might have intended.