by Steven Cramer
55 Poems ~ 101 Pages
Publisher: MadHat Press
To Order: https://bookshop.org/books/listen-9781952335082/9781952335082
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
As I contemplated my approach to reviewing Steven Cramer’s new collection Listen, the
words of Wendell Berry’s poem “How to Be a Poet” came to mind, “Make a place to sit
down. Sit down. Be quiet.” Berry, of course, does not specifically say “listen.” Why
should he? Berry knows his readers get his point: Listening is central to being a
person and indispensable to making sense of the world through art. In an age of
informational overload, in an age of Google, Facebook, and Twitter feeds of nonstop
assault on our intellectual and emotional resources, listening deeply, processing
what we are hearing and reading, qualifies as an endangered species. Enter Cramer
with his new volume.
I feel a necessity to caution readers that Cramer does not coddle his audience. There
is a certain darkness residing within his poems. This is even more reason to “listen”
carefully. As an artist, Cramer feels things more deeply than most folks. What do I
mean by the innocuous term “things”? Cramer unpacks the luggage of our lives. That
luggage is comprised of things tucked away in the darker corners of memory; things
we would rather not bring up; things that are painful to face; voices that speak to us
from our past. Cramer digs around, looks life squarely in its face, sets issues on the
table … and, like a compassionate shepherd, leads (does not drive) fortunate
readers toward truth, light, and renewal. One additional caveat: your reviewer
senses that the poet himself needs this volume as much as his audience.
The work is divided into four sections; with each section consisting of roughly equal
measures of poems: 14, 13, 13 and 15 in each section. I read the first and last poems
in each section as book ends which envelope the poems within. This excerpt from
“Bad,” the opening poem, portrays an aura of depression:
It got bad; pretty bad; then not
So bad; very bad; then back to bad.
Jesus, let’s let things not get even worse.
Who among us has not felt this way? Who among us has not petitioned:
Christ, let’s let things not get even worse.
The awkward wording in the poem’s last line is not a typographical error; it is
precisely the way I slur my own prayers when I’m really hurting. Cramer’s ability to
capture how we really are when we’re not at our best, makes this volume stand out.
Fast forward to the last poem in section I, which happens to be the volume’s title poem,
“Listen.” I sense that the poet is doing something that is not easy for him: he is listening
afresh to the voices of his family and especially to that of his Uncle George:
The one man in my family to kill
Krauts in World War II and return
drunk again. Most mornings he nursed
the same German stein. So badly
did he stutter, you’d think he licked
all the alum off his styptic pencil …
You will want to spend quality time with this poem in which Cramer invites such
luminaries as Walt Whitman, Thomas Edison, Mary Chilton (an ancestor who was the
first woman to step ashore at Plymouth) among other family members, who bear
witness to life-shaping memories of tragedy and hardship.
Within this envelope, fascinating titles such as “Zuni Fetishes, Santa Fe,” in which
Cramer references the work of famed New Mexico artist Georgia O’Keefe, “A
Cosmography of Melancholy,” where we learn about the poet’s three-year stay on Mars,
and “Lackawanna,” where “My brain felt swiped clean.” These poems testify to
why interacting with life’s darker corners, in the end, leads to the sweet savor of ripe
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether my premise that the first and last poems of
each section function as book ends, thus enhancing that section. Thinking of the
collection in this way provided a contextually coherent structure which let me frame
these excellent works in my mind.
Wallace Stevens, who is often regarded as the preeminent poet of the 20th century, wrote
to his daughter Holly in December of 1950, “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of
getting the world right.” While I believe that Steven Cramer would be the last to assert
that he has “gotten the world right,” I do believe he would affirm its wisdom as a baseline
principle of the poetic art.