Stephens’s debut volume is a spooky and sly collection of dramatic monologues and dialogues in blank verse. The poems are set in grim, rain-sodden spots all across the western US: roadside motels, cemeteries, and claustrophobic bars create the mood. Several of the poems are ghost stories, while others trade on the difficulty of telling the truly ghostly from the merely coincidental. In “Vineyard,” for example, three laborers sow vine cuttings and one is reminded of a grave he dug for his own baby; later on, he tells of an unearthed coffin whose occupant, “eyes wide as dollars,” had tried to claw his way out. In the closing lines he mistakes a live vine cutting for a dead one and the reader, with some discomfort, must re-evaluate the fate of the baby: “I know that line / Between the dead and living’s awful thin.” In poems such as this, Stephens’s writing is so fluid that one reads the piece several times, for the sheer pleasure of its voice, before attending to the hidden twists and ambiguities of the narrative. Stephens’s technique is clearly indebted to Frost, but he swerves from Frost’s woodsy subjects to a bleaker, more blue-collar world of “common grunts”—men who lose their days to meaningless, unremunerative labor: “[Ditch digging] isn’t science, and it isn’t art. / Quite senselessly, we pick the earth apart / And put it back, almost like before. / Nothing changes. Nothing.”
The humor of these poems is always harsh, mixed with a gallows reek, but it never detracts from the pleasures of reading. One of the more remarkable characteristics of the collection is its consistency: each poem deftly evokes a setting and summons a precise, individual voice. These are all unambiguously desolate spaces and desperate speakers, but their words are made luminous by Stephens’s careful and humane craft.