American poet A.E. Stringer teaches writing and literature at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, from where another Salmon poet, Ron Houchin
, hails. Houchin has an Appalachian connection and so too does Stringer as he edited a new edition of Louise McNeill's collection of Appalacian poetry, Paradox Hill. This is his second collection of his own poems after Channel Markers, published by the Wesleyan University Press. His work has appeared in American literature journals and he has travelled across the United States and even to Galway to read his poems. This current collection explores notions of identity and being. The human costume of the title is not just the flesh that our spirits wear but the facial expressions and gestures we adopt. The poems also play with the idea of the extremes of human existence. Starting with the apparent paradox of Halloween being followed by All Saints Day, that is the sinners and saints together, he considers the coming together of other extremes in human experience like earthly delights and physical suffering, or love and war. A constant theme running through this collection is what Stringer calls 'the emptiness' of extremes' in the poem 'Headstone Circus'.
Review: Human Costume reviewed by Philip St. Clair for the Summer 2011 issue of Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, published by the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University
The poems in Art Stringer’s latest collection center on the concept that human beings become multiple figures, and can change themselves as if they are swapping one costume for another – a process that can “both veil and reveal what animates us.” The title poem focuses on extreme situations: at the stroke of midnight, All Hallows Eve becomes All Saints Day, and when the speaker shows up at a Halloween party, he sees someone who is wearing his shoes, cap, gloves and even his manner: his double, a charmer, has the audacity to make an unsuccessful pass at the speaker’s wife. But instead of being angry, the speaker is rather proud: “He’s a brilliant study, like you-know-who. / That’s the beauty part.” But at the witching hour he slips away, and the speaker is waiting for him: they exchange clothes, and the double “dwindles into the harvest moon.” The speaker returns to the party, kissing a “fallen angel” en route -- after all, it’s a holy day.
Human beings and their ancestors have been apostrophizing the moon since the dawn of time. In “Halo Effect,” the poet, out walking before dawn, sees a familiar atmospheric phenomenon, links it to a Renaissance artistic convention, and produces a memorable image:
goes where you go, as in
sacred art: the holy figure
in the background crowd
always human, despite her
unmistakable ring, her placid
face turning aside.
Sometimes the poet’s fascination with the heavens filters downward into the earthbound and the Everyday. In “Phoenix Descending,” a woefully out-of-shape speaker does some exercises, and soon, in the middle of a sequence of stretches, a “mortal daze” affects him from the blood draining away from his head:
And in that imminent faint, whatever
curtain or tree, whatever wall or
skyline, whatever floor or grassy plain
I see before me wavers and floods
into the star-dotted sea called this
Sometimes the poet can be brutally frank about relationships, and in so doing makes a commentary about the fallout from the vicious give-and-take that often comes with betrayal and divorce. In “Perilous Rescue,” Stringer recounts the story of three marriages:
I killed one wife by loving
the other woman. In cold beds
half-a-life ago, they did not
But it does not end there: the consequences of infidelity seep like a toxin into the relationship with wife number three, who hates
the sorry story up to now:
my ex-wives, her children’s
double lives, the whole damned
In “Dinner Theater,” a brief encounter results in a road not taken when the hesitant, ineffectual speaker turns into a postmodern Prufrock:
When your eyes trailed over, conceding blue
affection, and hooked mine, I had to look away.
“Call me,” you said when I left. I said I would.
What I did was lie for months, ears ringing.
One of the delights of this collection is the attention paid to popular culture: Stringer is able to convey its deeper significance without spoiling any of the fun. In “Revenge of the Cactus People, 1954,” a group of saguaros morph into B-movie atomic mutants, and in “Mirror Puzzle,” Groucho and Harpo Marx engage once more in the empty-mirror scene from Duck Soup – are they themselves, or are they not? In “Backlot Warehouse,” Stringer invents a place big enough to store the properties from all the classic movies (King Kong, The Maltese Falcon, The Wizard of Oz, and so on) just in case some “Hollywood outsider” wants to use them all to make one single supercolossal blockbuster:
If all the props were planted in one project,
the film would tell the story of a nation’s
birth, a monster audience, an appetite
for thrills impossible to overestimate.
Philip St. Clair is Professor Emeritus at Ashland Community and Technical College in Ashland, Kentucky. His most recent poetry collection is Divided House, published by Finishing Line Press in 2005.