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Reviewed by:
  • Notes on Exile & Other Poems
  • Nicky Beer (bio)
Langan, Steve . Notes on Exile & Other Poems. Backwaters Press.

In his debut collection of poetry, Freezing (New Issues, 2001), Steve Langan established himself as a landscape artist of the interior. With pathos, humor, and insight, he rendered the dark panoramas of the mind, and how we struggle to reconcile those interior vistas with the actual world in which we live. Always lurking in the background of these poems was a kind of existential anxiety about "our bodies inhabiting this world of collisions," and the din of a modern world-"the sound of many sounds"-at once so close and yet so insensible. The speakers of these poems often struggle to rise to the challenge of this cacophony: "The remedy is go out into the noise; / the remedy is the indecipherable noise." With his recent chapbook, Notes on Exile & Other Poems, Langan has plunged headlong into the indecipherable noise and, like an embedded television reporter endeavoring to be heard over the sound of gunfire, wrests a human voice from the inhuman cultural discord. And though the poems are still firmly situated in the interior, it is an interior that is very much a product of twenty-first-century culture. More specifically, a culture in which language, as tool of political and commercial interests, seeks to obfuscate, rather than clarify reality. One of the recurring challenges the poet faces is the quasi-Celanian dilemma of writing poetry in the language that seems to consistently betray us.

In the poems born of this struggle, we do not simply hear the modulated observations of a lyric voice; with the progression of each line, we have an acute sense of a consciousness straining to reach across the white space that acts as a cognitive abyss between a multiplicity of thoughts. Through Langan's frequent use of the one- or two-line stanza of long lines, we are immersed in an actual poetic mind. In the title poem, for example, the restless shifts in tone, narrative, and diction emphasize the endless labors of the human mind attempting to mediate all of the disparate and cumulative information it receives into a cohesive reality:

Wait, I didn't think we'd have to sing hymns all night.Maybe we'll end up redeemers again after the blinds are drawn.I don't know why we confuse kindness, oddness, and science.Do you have a plan, a tune, like iron and sunshine?It is troubling to think of him lying in the basement.It is frightening to think of him living underground. [End Page 216] Errant butterflies, winged tales of the sublime.He keeps asking the matador to make sense of his cape.

("Notes on Exile")

Here, as in many of the poems, we witness the mind strenuously trying to shape the barrage of the senses and the storehouse of memory into a self. The speakers of this collection make heteroglossia their subject and their form, most remarkably in the superb poem in six voices, "On Labor, Epitaphs, and Housewives," in which the manual laborer acts as a surrogate for a consciousness acutely aware of living in a deteriorating world. It is a world always in desperate need of repair and transcendence:

No doctor will be fast enough    to stitch my hands when they explode.        [. . .]

    Once I could walk slick-fast    beams, dew hanging on steel    like aching fingers gripping    a brick ledge crumbling    in a movie director's split-second

    of calm before    some device, some safety's thrown.        [. . .]

    Every shift begins, rides,    ends in death. Therefore, mathematics.    How I can shuffle digits    as my shovel chips    the last morning purples golden

    is a mystery: dirt    and a comfortable hole.

The ruminations in this and other poems are often elliptical or associative in their unravelings, and yet there is always serious urgency underneath their meandering progression. And though the surreal often dominates the style of this collection, when we scratch the surface, we find a poet with distinctly Metaphysical preoccupations underneath. Though this is the most pronounced in "After John Donne" ("God, reconsider. / Earth is an interruption / of the epic dream. / Planets drift and sway."), mortality, divinity, and...


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pp. 216-218
Launched on MUSE
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