rev. of The World Book by Steven Cramer

Issue #60
Spring 1993

The World Book 
Poems by Steven Cramer. Copper Beech Press, $9.95 paper. Reviewed by H. L. Hix.

“Sentimentality,” Wallace Stevens said, “is a failure of feeling.” The poems in Steven Cramer’s courageous and powerful second collection,
The World Book, risk that failure: they address themes susceptible to sentiment, such as the narrator’s adolescence, the deaths of his father and brother, and his mother’s illness; and they speak in the first person, the voice to which sentiment comes most easily. But Cramer’s poems fight sentiment with our only available weapons: knowledge and integrity. His work recognizes and confronts the stupidity of adolescence, the ambiguity of political action, the facelessness of death, and the selfishness of grief. And ultimately, the poems, rather than succumbing to sentimentality, achieve intimacy.

Not even the narrator himself is sentimentalized. In “The Parade, 1968,” he is one of a group of “three high school juniors / And a 4-F dropout” who protest the war by carrying a pasteboard casket with a “mirror for a face / Through the Brookside Independence / Day Parade.” But no self-righteous posing poisons this poem: Cramer sees that the kids are motivated as much by fear and ignorance as by virtue, and that the girl “Who snatched our peace leaflets / And shredded them one by one” is motivated as much by grief as by patriotism, having recently “lost / Her brother’s forearm to Khesanh.” The poem ends with the protesters “cast adrift / With the floats and majorettes” at the end of the parade, left “To think
Now what?,” and able to find no answer more effective than to stand the casket on end so that it “Towered over us and them, / A head or more too tall / To reflect on anyone.”

In “After Bypass,” the narrator is in the hospital room with his recuperating mother: “Fresh from surgery, your sewn-up chest / Almost glowed through the sheer nightgown, / Its embossed ridge of stitches curving down / Between your breasts. What son could resist / A furtive look?” More than one otherwise competent poet has foundered on a mother’s-breasts poem, “driven,” to borrow George Oppen’s words, “into sentimentality, having nowhere else to go”; but Cramer, through precise language, transforms that furtive look from voyeurism to self-scrutiny: inversion of subject and object reveals that they “left
me exposed to
you” (my italics).

The father’s death is the most frequent subject of these poems, and Cramer faces it, too, with a hard-earned clarity. In a fine sonnet, the father and mother are shown at the moment when she is trying to give him a nitroglycerine pill, as they negotiate a “truce”: “In a voice more like a mother’s than a wife’s, /
For me, she pleads. He permits her to save his life.” Cramer has not let grief make him forget that our need to be loved makes us selfish in our own death, and our fear of abandonment makes us selfish in the deaths of those we love. In “Constellations,” the father himself has the sharpness of vision only experience combined with awareness of mortality can give. Watching stars and the lights of landing airplanes with his family, he forestalls the romanticizing of a shooting star by explaining that “they’re only meteors, / Space debris so infinitesimal / Thousands could fit in his palm,” and seeing at the same time his own star “Flame out in the upper atmosphere, / A split-second of light / No one’s quick enough to share.”

The World Book, Steven Cramer sets out to write “a narrative / Of everyone alive who now is not.” That narrative’s success results from Cramer’s knowledge that “the punishing exactitude of memory” is the “single way to enter / Such cold water.”

H. L. Hix teaches philosophy at the Kansas City Art Institute and has poems in the current issues of  The Georgia Review, Northwest Review,
and Four Quarters.