There are many ways to show courage through poetry. Some poems dare to let their beauty arise through the gaps in meaning, in the lacunae they create to thwart our immediate understanding. Others dare to say something outright, to take the risk of making bold, definitive statements about some aspect of the world, to conjure that whiplash snap of recognition in the reader’s mind.
Robert Earl Stewart, in his new collection Campfire Radio Rhapsody, has both of these types of poetry covered. But what makes this book unique – and delightfully chilling – is the third type of courage it shows: the courage to process explicit acts of violence through a keen, well-honed poetic eye and then lay them bare for the reader. Whether summoning the mentality of a Siamese cat on the hunt (“I’m a 300-pound puma and I pounce/ on a rat and its intestines bloom/ from the furry cavity like a pink carnation …”) or relaying the human-wrought horror of an abattoir (“The pig screams for mercy, as the screw draws near/ busting gristle, popping skulls,/ using a brisket against flesh in an orgy/ of grinding and juice …”) Stewart is not afraid to make his readers squirm. There were times when this collection left me with an unrecognizable, inscrutable sense of unease. And I mean that as a compliment.
Stewart wears many hats in his life – he is a parent; he has worked as an editor for a small-town newspaper; he sings in a band called Waker Glass – and he brings many of these experiences to bear on his poetry. Campfire Radio Rhapsody maintains a precarious balance between its moments of explicit violence and its more implicit instances of tenderness, acting, I suppose, as a receiver for life’s more extreme ends of the spectrum.
Contrast, for example, Stewart's poem “The County Reporter” with his poem “Not Yet, Thomasin.” The former is about the everyday carnage that a small-town journalist can encounter in the line of his work. In part 2 of the poem, labeled Wave Pool, he describes with Ballardian accuracy the destruction of a car crash – “She removed some paperback novels/ and a tartan blanket dripping with kernels of windshield/ from the back seat ...” and moves on to the powerful image of a horrendous death:
And now, with your Buick glacially stillin the stifling corridors of corn, struck downjust north of the Dairy Freez, just southof the last place you drew breath,I snap the shot that will become synonymouswith your death: the dull grey hood rippledin curtains of impact …
Compare this with “Not Yet, Thomasin,” a piece about the poet watching his sleeping son have a dream. It’s such an affectionate moment between father and child (but again, laced with an undercurrent of disquiet) as the speaker learns what his boy was dreaming about:
but he remembers his dream:his little sister turning into a balloon and floating away,and how he caught her and brought her back downto his sideAnd he is not devastated by his dream’spower … but rather, seems buoyedby the assurance he’s gained in his ability to bethe protector; the boy who anchored his sister to the earth.
The fact that this collection can straddle so successfully two such disparate moments – one of cataclysmic devastation, one of familial innocence – speaks to the breadth of this poet’s abilities, his fearlessness in tackling a wide range of subjects along the frequency of life’s experience.
Whether unbraiding a brief anecdote or exploring a lengthy childhood memory, Stewart shows a well-groomed talent in nearly every stanza. Campfire Radio Rhapsody, with its mix of the gentle and the vicious, is full of small joys and larger meanings.