» Book Review
Homage to Mistress Oppenheimer by Steve Kronen
Eyewear Publishing, 2018
60 pages, paperback, $14.99
Steve Kronen is a master of what we might call the “high” art of poetry, by which I mean a poetry in which the craft is deep and various and the knowledge of poetic and cultural traditions informs—and even determines—the poet’s formal choices, intellectual range, and emotional responses to his chosen subject matter. In his most recent book, Homage to Mistress Oppenheimer, Kronen’s embrace of traditional forms is both assured and innovative. In the best of these poems, the poet’s wide-ranging, multi-faceted references to intellectual, cultural and scientific traditions feel embedded organically in the language, part of the very sinew of the verse.
The poems embrace a mind-boggling cast of characters from high and popular culture and ideas ranging across the Western canon, to say nothing of a host of well-known and not-so-well-known poets. In a less assured writer, in fact, such constant formal and intellectual pyrotechnics might seem mere affectation, a pretentious and show-off-y affirmation of the poet’s knowledge of the Western canon, a kind of acrobatics of the soul. In Kronen’s best poems, though, such acrobatics seem part of the poet’s blood and marrow, embedded in his heart and central nervous system. In these stronger poems, in fact, the present world and the world that lies behind and before it, are braided in fresh, original ways. This is a strong book, unfashionable in its artistic gusto and challenging in intellectual range, one that apprentice poets as well as long-term practitioners can learn from and enjoy.
One of the pleasures of deftly crafted, intricate poems such as Kronen’s, poems in which challenging formal structures are actively determinative of content, lies in the fact that they reveal themselves fully only after successive readings. Take for example the first two stanzas of a sestina-in-rhyme, “How I Became King”:
Rumors from the capital: the caliph lowered
his fork of larks’ tongues in dreamy hollandaise
and ordered all of black-draped Constantinople
to turn its mournful eye to the Emperor-
to-be, a pleasant tow-haired boy, his snuff-
sniffing father, Stefan the Garrulous,
dredged from the carp-pond, leaving us ruleless
at last, our village decking its huts with flowered
wreaths and dancing the long-repressed Balinksnov—
Yanka Hoy! Yanka Ruiz!—three days
and nights, slitting the goat to make for purer
days ahead while I, a baby at nipple…
Even in this short excerpt, Kronen’s wide embrace is emphatic and impressive. The pleasure in the play of language is manifest. It is also obvious that the poem won’t be captured on a single reading. Rather, one must sit with it a while. In the case of this poem, real rewards follow.
In some others, though, in which the play is not so exuberant and the language not quite so scintillating, the poems—which in fact require explanatory notes to be fully grasped—one comes away merely befuddled. Even these less-successful poems, though, resist obscurity and work as poems—that is, as made things—as Kronen’s language is always clear and well-wrought. Kronen aspires not toward Ashbery or Carson; his contemporary masters are the likes of Justice and Wilbur.
In a few of the poems here, Kronen seems to relax, to allow a memory or an experience seem to speak for itself in a freer, less formally-determined language. These are among the freshest, most deeply moving poems in the book. Take for example “The Present,” quoted here in full:
All of this too taking on the stilted look
of childhood photographs:
my brother and I on a couch, a small box
unwrapped in his lap, both of us gray,
couch and carpet gray, the day beyond the open window
gray and its curtain pulled outside for the moment
by a puff of wind. Hold up, again, delighted,
to the photographer, Mom or Dad,
your first watch, hanging from your hand
like a caught fish, its darting eye grown dull
in a blink.
Like his masters, Kronen delights in puns. These are almost uniformly refreshing and witty and very funny. One of my favorites forms part of a short series entitled “They May Not Mean to, But They Do,” which references a famous (infamous?) Philip Larkin poem of the same title. I’ve chuckled at this poem numerous times since I first read it a number of years ago. Here it is, in full:
No one from our family
had ever left to play baseball.
Go ahead, said my mother,
strike out on your own.
As in his two previous books of poetry, in Homage to Mistress Oppenheimer, Steve Kronen shows himself to be a serious artist, ambitious not for fame but merely (merely!) to make a good poem, that most worthy and difficult enterprise in which “… to speak of time was nearly to speak about love.”