Paul Scott Stanfield reviews Adam Tedesco’s first full-length collection of “difficult” poetry.

Adam Tedesco, Mary Oliver (Lithic Press, 2019), 120 pp.

“There is a gentle gibe here that I’m sure you’re picking up on,” writes Adam Tedesco of his book’s surprising title in a brief afterword to this, his first full-length collection, audaciously named for a much more famous poet. The gibe presumably lies in the circumstance that Mary Oliver’s poetry is more esteemed by the public (or that part of the public that reads poetry at all) than it usually is by other poets. Oliver’s writing of broadly recognizable emotions in a relatively direct and readily graspable way has been welcomed with relief and gratitude by a large number of general readers; some of her fellow poets, however, might see it as taking the easy route.

Tedesco seems, as a poet, to incline more to the approach that might trace its descent to T. S. Eliot’s proud but anguished 1921 declaration that “poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” Tedesco’s afterword acknowledges a debt to the “Misty Poets” (or the “Obscure Poets” as they are known to scholars of modern Chinese poetry): the Chinese poets who contended for the right to be obscure, personal and difficult, in spite of official disapproval. Every page of his book bears phrases that fascinate but resist quick interpretation: “six billion soft serve heads / melting under an infinity of ingrown neurons”; “a quandary of salt”; “antlers shed / in the presence of heavy cream.” The reader who picks up this volume thinking that the poetry therein will resemble that of Mary Oliver herself is in for some tough sledding.

Yet the title is not merely a gibe. Oliver’s name metonymically conjures up accessibility and popularity, true, but also honesty, self-understanding, and a willingness to dispense with disguises. During the time in which he was writing some of these “difficult” poems, Tedesco was living through difficulty of a grimmer, more painful kind – a failing marriage, substance abuse – and he found that his writing began to take on “a more direct and semi-confessional style,” leading him to joke that he was “becoming Mary Oliver.” Tedesco even began to use the more famous poet’s name “as a euphemism for hard drugs, and then for the act of injecting them,” as we might already have guessed from some lines of his poem “Mary Oliver”: “Sometimes blacking out / I wonder how long / I can go without / going down.”

The poems are rarely so straightforwardly confessional, though. They are jeweled, strange, oneiric, haunted – the images we get of the poet’s life are mobile and kaleidoscopic, seen through the craquelure of a shattered prism:

I imagine an embodiment of the complex sexual relationship
between what emerges from the seafoam green of hospital tiles
and myself as I drag a scalpel across my ribcage tracing light
– “Trenbalone”

Twice a year with a toothbrush I clean the floor
because like owls, owning a viciousness
ignored in favor of their adoration,
your god might not be dead yet
– “Truly”

Tedesco frequently uses a form of three or four stanzas each of seven pairs of lines, in which a longer line is paired with a slightly shorter one. The stanza has something of the appearance of a sonnet, something of a sonnet’s architecture, but the length of the lines gives it a looser, more headlong rhythm, a feeling of having escaped some confinement:

Learning to live in a ghost house where desire is the only ghost
        that speaks the high
    gold tongue of fashion, the only ghost here that knows
how to handle being wanted by ghosts, is how I pass the time
        between donuts and
    ghosting. Then, with less eventual stiffness of body,
        we revive
a curl of wild hair, a swift and imprecise distribution of palm’s
        water in slick print
    atop the rose of a cheek and speak of how the lightning
rod is never as right or wrong as we desire from the cleanliness of
        narrative, the rise
    and fall of balls of foil in elevator shafts; this is everybody’s
God. Every body’s God giving up sounds like the sentence
        Everything’s a Rorschach,
    spoken by a child who shouldn’t understand the dilemma
of leaving the past ajar, a city grown as tight with intention as
        colonized rye grain,
    blueing at its edges. Driving east of 82nd in the dark I miss it,
the goal of confusing myself for you, the slow and sudden
        displacement of self,
    the wet cake of home, eyes, and hands over transit and time.
– “Mythology”

The movement and flight here, the sense of a voice trying to catch up with itself, or desperately trying to stay ahead of itself, also animates “Pound Away,” “A Desiring Phylogeny,” “Eclipse Patterns” and “Mainmast,” and we are pulled up short when the form recurs one last time with “Wreckage,” which begins, “What the fuck, Adam.”

The title Mary Oliver – definitely more than a gibe – does not announce a stylistic affinity, but does signal what Tedesco learned in recovery, which made possible the completion of the book: “the futility of coolness, that propensity to resist awe for fear of vulnerability.” The difficulty of not always resorting to “difficulty” as a protective or evasive gesture is the challenge to which Tedesco had to rise in order to write this book, and he met it.

Paul Scott Stanfield was educated at Grinnell College and Northwestern University, and has been a member of the English Department at Nebraska Wesleyan University since 1989. He is the author of Yeats and Politics in the 1930s and of articles on Yeats, other Irish poets, and Wyndham Lewis.

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