Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, November 7, 2015

J. D. Schraffenberger, _The Waxen Poor_

THE BOOK'S TITLE is a curveball; my first guess was that it referred to the effects of a inadequate diet on the complexion. One of the blurb writers went similarly astray, I suspect: "With words that melt us down like fire burning candle wax," etc. Turns out that the modifier "waxen" is in this instance derived not from the noun "wax" but from the verb "wax," to grow or to become, as in the verse from Leviticus that serves as epigraph: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee."

Roughly the first third and the final third of the book are devoted to poems about Schraffenberger's brother Tom, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his early teens, institutionalized soon after, and died young. The Leviticus verse is clearly not only about blood relatives, but its pertinence is apparent; Tom did fall into decay, did become a kind of stranger or someone on a lonely journey, and the poems are about what one could and could not do to relieve him.

As in his first book, Schraffenberger seems drawn to not-entirely-closed forms; the unrhymed sonnets of Saint Joe's Passion have a kind of parallel here in several poems with unrhymed couplets and unrhymed terza rima (if it isn't an oxymoron to so designate them). We even have some rare examples  of that most closed of closed forms, the acrostic, in a series of poems called "Meds," in each of which the side effects of a particular drug are described in poems that vertically spell out its name.

The poems that really open out the book, though, are prose poems--"Full Gospel" and a series of untitled short pieces halfway into the book (which may be part of "The Once and Future Me"; I couldn't quite tell). "Full Gospel" places Tom's psychotic break in the context of the Pentecostal faith of his and the author's grandparents, linking up with other religiously-themed poems ("Communion," "Messianic," "Judas"), but at a kind of oblique angle, both formally and (shall we say) theologically. The poems at mid-volume likewise feel like a departure from the rest of the volume, but a departure that somewhat mysteriously belongs, adding a dimension without being part of the picture in any immediately identifiable way.

Nice cover, too, from Twelve Winters Press. No nice way to say this, but the cover of Saint Joe's Passion was god-awful. What is it with Etruscan? They publish good poets, but their covers always look like self-published volumes of devotional verse.

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