» Book Review
A Refusal of Despair
Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano
Etruscan Press, 2019
Paperback. 122 pages. $16.00
Although published more than a year ago, Ill Angels, with its indomitable refusal of despair, may be one of those books we need to read in the year of escalating climate crises, social, political and cultural warfare, and the resurgence of and the promise of more biological pandemics. Ill Angels does not wince in the face of the terrible cruelties that haunt the world, but it also does not cede ground in its insistence on hope.
On the one hand, Dante Di Stefano’s second book of poetry is a neoromantic paean to possibility, to faith in a future embodied in children and teenagers (especially his students). On the other hand, a countervailing, or perhaps complementary, tendency in Ill Angels finds Di Stefano celebrating the present and presence, represented as much by the distant indifference of inanimate objects (“Jubilate Pluto”) as the proximate insouciance of wild animals (“The Porcupine Climbing the Apple Tree”). Because Di Stefano is all too aware of the cruelty that lies beyond his classrooms—see, for example, “Verruckt,” “45th,” and “O Trampling Empire”—he insists on a love that is the equivalent of ungrounded theological faith.
This means that at times Di Stefano echoes the passionate declamations of a Ross Gay, a Cyrus Cassells or an even earlier John Clare. But unlike Gay, Cassells and Clare, Di Stefano’s aestheticized fervor is more metaphysical than quotidian, his tender poems to his wife and his children notwithstanding. This unadulterated sincerity has its risks: many of these poems approach a too-sweet sentimentality, and a few, unfortunately, broach the border, weaving back and forth between good taste and self-indulgent rapture.
Fortunately, the balance of this book finds Di Stefano celebrating his good-faith fantasies— “I know all prayer is merely the patter / of little feet coming down the stairwell / in a daydream of a future household”—with well-crafted, often playful, metaphors and similes, bolstered by over-the-top alliteration and assonance that wink at pop culture icons like Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton, to say nothing of literary warhorses like Swift, Pope, and Hopkins. Still, Di Stefano’s unrestrained gaiety in the age of what he aptly names “Stump Speech” demands a robust defense, and while a poem like “And Why This Ridiculous Happiness?” takes a giant step in that direction—there’s no gainsaying the stunning transcendence of lines like “If you speak to eighth graders as angels / and to angels as eighth graders, already / you have become fluent in paradise”—I can’t help but wonder at this excessive faith in language, in poetry, that sidesteps—not overrides—doubt. For that faith seems to depend on delayed endorsement, on retroactive belief: one hopes for love and happiness, and when it happens one believes it appears, in hindsight, as predestined.
Di Stefano implicitly acknowledges this slippage between faith and imagination, which is why he also knows that joy can only be truly joy if it is utopian, literally nowhere, unchained from time and space. At the same time other slippages—between past and future, between presence and absence—enable a kind of manic happiness, a man inebriated on both the past and future. Di Stefano and his beloved wander among his “memories of imagined futures,” adrift between innocence and suspended disbelief: “for now we listen / and nothing can curb the sound of this band / as it plays ‘I Ate Up the Apple Tree.’” And if such a postlapsarian moment could last, the two would always be nearing “the Mardi Gras of / an Eden we’ll be forever leaving.” The traditional secular realm of this nowhere is, of course, art. Thus, we are to “imagine the string, / attached to a red balloon painted / in oil on muslin, a gentle tether / that holds us nowhere amidst the cosmos.”
To be fair, Di Stefano is not always this overweening and serious. Several poems find the poet in a comic, jocular mood, however much these light flourishes veil darker political and cultural realities. These modest reprimands are best captured in punchy lines like “I think I dated the national debt / on a dare for a week in middle school; / I didn’t like the way she chewed bubble gum.” Ill Angels is peppered with these kinds of tongue-in-cheek delights, and for this reader, sweet tooth aside, they leaven the saccharine confections. As a whole, Ill Angels suggests that Di Stefano is, in the end, an Omni-American, to use Albert Murray’s phrase, a true believer in the country’s destiny which, for Murray (as well as fellow travelers like Ralph Ellison and the recently deceased Stanley Crouch), redeems its past. One implication of this story of redemption is that racial, class, and gender differences evince democratic diversity more so than they do intractable hierarchies. For example, Di Stefano’s odes to jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins focus less on their aesthetic achievements than their populist implications. In practice, then, the Constitution is an open-ended document: “Anyone who opens her mouth to sing / erases and rewrites the preamble.” For Di Stefano, this is hope, and hope is only love in action (to paraphrase everybody from M.L.K to Cornel West). Ill Angels thus unites religious, political, cultural, and domestic faith under one flag—hope—and, like Jesse Jackson, who once proclaimed the same during his 1988 presidential run, Di Stefano wants to keep hope alive.