A veteran poet ruminates on solitude, insanity, deviance, and health in this collection.
Roughly 140 years ago, Peter Taft—half brother to a future U.S. president—was shut away in the Cincinnati Sanitarium. The exact reason for his institutionalization remains unclear to this day, but readers do know that his time in the asylum was intensely stressful. His sense of isolation was acute, and whatever treatments he received did little to assuage his pain. Readers know all this from Taft’s letters, which are lovingly reproduced by his great-granddaughter as found poems and which serve as the core of this moving, masterful tour de force. Taft is a poet in spite of himself—or perhaps in spite of his circumstances—and his missives read like poignant verse. The most affecting is, aptly, the title poem, which opens: “Dear Father, / I am alone this evening as every, / alone. An artist of imperfect / mind is endeavoring to extract / harmonious discords out of a cracked / piano just at my left. Life here / is of the plainest, I might say, / of the hardest kind.” Stever (The Lunatic Ball, 2015, etc.) is mainly reproducing the work of her ancestor here, but it’s a wonder what a few deftly placed line breaks can do for emphasis. Taft’s letters are the foundation of this elegantly rendered book, but Stever angles away from them in a variety of dazzling and unexpected ways. Some tropes repeat: human cruelty, the distance between madness and genius, motherhood, the uniqueness of Ohio. Several poems seem to be one-offs, though no less valuable because their concerns are tangential to those of the other pieces. “Raven’s Rock,” about three ghosts that haunt the countryside near Sleepy Hollow, New York, features the following: “What is a raven but a bird, a ghost / but a raven bird, and the ghosts of three women / ravenous, waiting at Raven’s Rock / for a single man to pass by.” Stever’s kneading of the single word “raven”—which morphs from noun to adjective to proper noun while hiding in “ravenous”—is an act of faith and skill few rookie poets could pull off. But Stever is anything but a novice; she is a virtuoso, and it’s a joy to see her perform.
A seasoned poet working at the peak of her craft.