on ]Open Interval[, poems by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (University of Pittsburgh Press)

The first “contemporary” poet I read with avidity was Denise Levertov. In 1966 she wrote, “There is a poetry that in thought and in feeling and in perception seeks the forms peculiar to these experiences,” a definition I inscribed on the inside cover of my undergraduate notebook in 1969.


Long after you have swung back
away from me
I think you are still with me:

you come in close to the shore
on the tide
and nudge me awake the way

a boat adrift nudges the pier:
am I a pier
half-in half-out of the water?

and in the pleasure of that communion
I lose track,
the moon I watch goes down, the

tide swings you away before
I know I'm
alone again long since,

mud sucking at gray and black
timbers of me,
a light growth of green dreams drying.

The newness of her theory and the practice of her work were intended to clarify by way of intuitive form. Thought, feeling and perception were things she wanted to make incarnate in her language. She believed in the permanent value of these impermanent elements. In her poetry, emotional considerations were absorbed into a transforming language – but they continued to thrive as renewed presences, as if in new bodies. “There is something of labor in the creative process,” she later said in her essay “Working and Dreaming,” but it consists in that focusing of attention upon what is given, and not in the ‘struggle for expression.’” The poet’s role is both custodial and prescriptive. By caring for what is given (in the world), her words will shape a unique model of appreciation.

lyrae.jpgLyrae Van Clief-Stefanon acknowledges her debts to many poets in her dynamic second book, ]Open Interval[: Levertov, Mona Van Duyn, Jorie Graham, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Linda Bierds, Sonia Sanchez, and also Rilke, Paz, Brodsky, Robert Hass and Jack Gilbert. Although these echoes are evident in the book’s inspirations, selection of material, organization, forms, and themes, ]Open Interval[ is an utterly original work powered by its obsessions. Naturally, I hear Levertov above the other borrowings – in the quick flash of correspondence between the lyrical and the moral, and the surrender to the “given,” a prevailing emotional force embodied in exciting language. For me, Levertov’s “Losing Track” streams into Van Clief-Stefanon’s superb “Lost”:


The river, unrolled bolt of silk, gives
evening the smell of fish, wet leaves,
loosening matter. We glide through
its blue-plum tint toward night, the leftover
tang of red wine in our mouths. Upstream
an idea waits for us: if we were lost
how much more would we love each other.
We four move toward this losing with
the steady creak and drip of our rowing.
We cannot in lowering darkness tell direction,
whether the frog’s croak came from behind
or before us. Our bellies full, the swamp beckons us
behind its green drapery. Whatever hides
in the tangle – the surprise of cypress knees;
the fierce, sharp-edged palms welting our forearms as
we walk blind through mottled night’s
sulfur rot and sucking mud; what flies
into our mouths, impossible to see;
mosquitoes lighting in our ears, their constant
whine high-pitched and crazy-making;
the silent patience of gators and our
warm estimation of their hunger –
we will keep, we are certain, as we lose
ourselves for hours, when we find ourselves again
bank-side, and two must choose to swim because
we’re not where we began. The river moves
despite our stillness, our breath
breathing itself into the wet heat, whether
they disappear for good, the two who
splash away, their heavy kicking swallowed by
this evening, I am of the two who wait,
waist high in water, eyes stretched wide to see
nothing but night, washing itself, black
over black in muggy layers inches from
my face, not my hands, skin of water, curve
of meniscus, my breasts where I displace it,
my undissolved legs immersed, merged
with water, losing above, in, out of, but for
these hands sliding over me, another’s
hands to keep me from becoming
current tongue, lisp of leaf tips touching
water, but for we, two, touching, agreeing
this is my body. Agreeing, I still belong in it.

lyrae6.jpg“Lost” contemplates the book’s overarching theme – the insistent sense that we live on the brink of taking new shapes with every experience. “Lost” is also an implied lesson, teaching that beauty demands a confrontation. But in its density, diction and form, “Lost” is also atypical of most of the work in ]Open Interval[. Van Clief-Stefanon has learned the art of managing a book’s variable address, rhythm and facets from poets like Louise Glück, who perhaps has also provided a precedent for self-mythology. “Lost” is a reminiscence, but most of ]Open Interval[ is sonically designed with the agitated urgency of a self-in-the-making.

lyrae5.jpgThe constellation Lyra, featuring the bright summer star Vega, includes “RR Lyrae,” a pulsing variable star that waxes and wanes, dims then brightens. If beauty achieves presence through confrontation and naming, then Van Clief-Stefanon will not hesitate to associate this celestial beauty Lyrae with her own illuminating speaker. In a series of poems placed throughout the book, the speaker addresses “Dear John,” John Goodricke, the 18th century astronomer who was among the first to observe variable stars. Goodricke died of pneumonia in 1786 at the age of 22:

DEAR JOHN: (Invention)

there in Groningen the body
you wait for me

to give you
and your mother as I

imagine her dealing with
your fever, her faith

the university a heaven of sorts
beyond you glittering

out the window the voice
you release crying

here, Mick Jagger sings “Wild Horses”
there, Banneker carves

his wooden clock, writes his note
to Jefferson there,

there,, Levina croons, soothing you
silent – the difference

between sound a silence
this lying distance

lyrae3.jpgThe voice here is that of “the body / you wait for me / to give you,” RR Lyrae swelling with shape. The voice of the poem grows to its full assertion – our sounds, our poetry, obliterating the conventions of time and space. This is the key idea in both Levertov’s “Losing Track” and Van Clief-Stefanon’s “Lost” – the creation of the poem’s new moment, a victory over the limitations of circumstance. Her poem “Ithaca,” beginning with an epigraph from Levertov’s “Settling,” is also about getting lost, drawn away in order to encounter the concrete: “Walking toward -- / conflation of // arrival and creation -- / making it // -- here and / out here where // walking out // to discover anything / but corporeality is bunk --:” The staggered lines suggest the effort of discovery, a more artful embodiment of Levertov’s unabashed outburst at the conclusion of her “The Métier of Blossoming”:

If humans could be
that intensely whole, undistracted, unhurried,
swift from sheer
unswerving impetus! If we could blossom
out of ourselves, giving
nothing imperfect, withholding nothing!

“Body Worlds 2: In Case” considers the recent Body World exhibitions in which bodies and body parts are “plastinated” to display our internals. The violence of her reaction, seemingly shrill, is gauged to equalize that of the show: “I haven’t even seen it / and // I’m / freaked.” The startling second section reads:

I keep reeling
Kennedy’s skull flap –

too pink, shot back

--: the reflexed
hands to

the throat. I’m sitting in

my Element

at the edge
of Cayuga Lake.

It’s spring. Why peel it

back, away?

at my beautiful

foot –

my windshield’s clean.
I rest

my leg against
the heating vents, my

long brown foot foregrounded on
the dash before

the sky’s excellent

clear April –
my silver-painted

pedicure. Why move beyond

slender bark-brown
silver-tipped toes? –

Such a beautiful foot evokes its intended fetishes. ]Open Interval[ is inhabited by a voice that demands to be taken as beautiful, representative of the leaping thought that guides us Beatrice-like through the ghastly exhibitions and mud-sucking swamps. We should adore that “slender bark-brown” foot – but, as she writes in “Blackbody Radiator,” “Nothing trusts // how beautiful I can / find almost / anything I must be.” Her “Penelope” is attuned to perception: “The truth: There are no suitors --: // I am a black woman alone / In a small town … Neighbors mistake me / For the only other // Black women they’ve known.”

Sometimes Van Clief-Stefanon can’t help but bite on a preachy lure (Levertov did, too, as heard in the lines above). At the end of “Body Worlds 2” she feels compelled to spell out what’s already been fully suggested: “the real threat // of the exhibition / of seeing // the one who’s been posed / holding his own // split skin open – like a flasher -- // by its flayed edges.” But offering a key contrast, “Body Worlds” successfully implies the more spiritually healthy bodily considerations of the one who treats the visible, regarded extravagantly, as a sufficient wonder. In “RR Lyrae: Matter” she writes, “Sometimes the absences in us seem sp profuse, / I wonder we don’t pass through wood.” A woman in a burqa in “July 2005, London” is sighted like a variable star:

She keeps her secret -- : a promise –
the terrifying allure of

her body, shaded – her

an almost
silence: --

she who’s
past – material

whispering air,
quiet as

a peregrine’s glide
through snowfall: -- the slicing

of a live white
through white.

There is a fine modulation between a hunger for experience – and a retraction of attention as safety-valve to preserve the hunger-impulse. For instance, in the early poem “The Buffet Dream” every desire is indulged (and the poem’s longer lines seem built to carry armloads of appetizing treats): “Empty-handed on its ever-rocking water bed, hunger / waits you out, weights you. It’s possible you’ve tasted every sweet / nothing your mind can offer, that delicious list you wanted // licked down to nothing, swallowed.” But at mid-book we find the slender poem “The Orchard,” a place with pleasures that invite one to settle permanently, but “despite the apples / refusing to fall, you can’t / resist leaving here. / You look forward to / the apples. You drive back / just to leave.”

lyrae2.jpgThe speaker of these poems is invigorated by the sense of space in herself (“we / all know what matter’s mostly made of”) and her flights of space-defying imaginings of bodies in transformation, bodies recognized. But she also responds to gravity like any earthling. The brilliantly variable Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is without question one of the most generous and stimulating poets we have – accessible through the necessary difficulties of language delivering the actual. In the book’s final poem “Tandem,” wielding her created self’s dramatic potential with amazing verve, she does nothing less than land firmly among us for the admiration we’re now able to shower on her:

I fell

right through right
down to earth

right down

to the drop zone –

to the circle
of pea gravel where

I unbuckled myself from a man
and stood

on my own shaking legs.

[Published April 26, 2009. 96 pages, $14.95 paperback]