Review of Stephanie L. Harper’s The Death’s Head’s Testament

The Death’s Head’s Testament continues on from Stephanie’s previous book This Being Done & fortunate for us Stephanie is in the present progressive, hammering out the dimensions of poems. The poems here continue to wade in the difficulties of womanhood, family, child-rearing, love, life, memory & death.

There is wakeful invention, an intellectual alacrity, sure-footedness even on the tremulous ground of the heart in the track of each advancing line. Something common-place, is elevated to heightened importance if only for it being what it is: a potential for articulation & loving.

Despite the morbidity of the title, I hope (well-founded on the verve of being a life-bringer & cultivator, which Stephanie wears unashamedly on her sleeve) that Stephanie isn’t concerned as Roy Fisher expresses in Poplars that“I think I am afraid of becoming a cemetery of performance.” Stephanie’s performance is to be anticipated.

Stephanie sets off from a harbour in the American tradition with an echo of “Call me Ishmael” but we are steered away by Stephanie’s humble admission “i’m no kind of Ishmael” continuing “to expound some great protagonist’s wayward saga” but I’d say that, no, she isn’t, this isn’t a saga. Stephanie’s poems are more Heidegger’s Dasein made into an expansive zone: a being-present-in. They are ruminations on humanness, the sort of humanness we read in Wallace Stevens’ verse from Chocorua to its Neighbor:

To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
To speak humanely from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speech.

Stephanie is acutely aware of her woman-ness ruminating-through the Dasein, she explains she hasn’t

the slightest inkling of other 
 
women’s misfortunes, nor do i know
if i’m even justified in such grief over a life
squandered on an endless vigil’s cries of    
who sees me now?  & now?  & now?
 
who, besides this mirror i face,
knows my bulging litany of failures,
my spurious assumption of a character i detest?

She’s wide open with herself, comfortably, easily of & for women, but also-for humanness; without hint of difficulties spreading herself between the various camps within gregarious humanity.

There is something contained, something only to be there in the poetry, to be leeched out with effort. Stephanie’s poems are not easy, they might even be her “globed satellites” a humourous metaphor for her breasts, also a metaphorically “gravitational force” which she has “abhorred since youth.” They become the “murdered albatross”. The fleshy albatross is the burden of womanhood, the burden of parturition, as well as the difficulty in the creation of poetry. I am wary of taking this to a more profound level than humour. Line by line the mood can turn without warning. Where there is the lightened mood of “globed satellites” we end “downcast like a faded damask rose”, as if the lightness of humour doesn’t expel the burden of the flesh.

Things I Cannot Say is anecdotal, humourous & revealing:

a burned-out Graduate Assistant 
(who couldn’t have distinguished a metaphysical marvel from
her left elbow)

using an orangutan puppet called Andreas “recruited to teach German reflexive verbs to Undergrads”, an object manipulated, like a metaphor, to work for the teacher to increase the likelihood of getting verbs to move into a workable order. That they are reflexive, punning on reflective, which this poem is: a reflection to a previous life & time.

The albatross turns into the orangutan. Now, the orangutan works for the budding ruminator, rather than weighing her down. This act of metamorphosis illustrates the disparities of ourselves from one age to another as we get people to witness us. Despite the awkwardness, the weariness & Andreas, a decision to take the elevator becomes a moment never to be forgotten:

you decided to take the elevator back up from your 
third floor classroom to your eighth floor office in Van Hise,
& discovered yourself being flanked for five flights by two
Tibetan Buddhist Monks in their maroon & saffron-yellow robes:
Geshe Sopa, whom you recognized from the Asian Studies Department
on the twelfth floor, & his brightly-smiling companion, none other than
His Holiness the Dalai Lama—even though you’ll never forget how
Andreas clasped his banana, while you summarily exited your body
on a silent wave of preternatural warmth, the mouth of the thing
you would never again inhabit fixing itself into a ridiculous grin.

Andreas is an object. But Andrea becomes so much more. Andreas is a real object who transforms through Stephanie into a sensual quality. We glimpse how metaphor works. As a metaphor, an actor, Andreas is able to transmute the difficult, perhaps even mundane regime of rote learning into something feasible, interesting, while also attempting to get at the core of language & even to establish a memory to be reflected back to. So Andreas becomes an object of not only the poetic foreshadowing of Stephanie, but also an objectification of metaphor itself. Moreover, Andreas is a tool, as is metaphor, used to get a fix on the essentiality of not just meaning, but things in themselves & their extensive usage.

The tone is often easy, the anecdotal, effortless as if they’ve been told countless times, & like myths gaining new interpretations, improved upon; so the poems arrive here.

Twenty years ago
I received a birthday gift
from a close college buddy-slash-sometime lover
(What on earth were we thinking?).
Back then, our past was already in the past
& twenty-four was already not young.
He gave me a coffee mug
covered in chickens—
 
yes, painted chickens—

Through this intimate tone, Stephanie becomes comfortable with us, inviting us to be comfortable with her. The chicken, a motherly, robust, fertile symbol. For Stephanie is unashamedly a mother & any mother & reader of poetry would find a friend & familiarity in poems such as Briefing from the Sunday Review Board with its religious tone moving seamlessly with the normality of home life:

Blessed be the Teenagers 
   
greasified & bespectacled
though they be     for lolling with you on the couch
to watch an “old” movie from two thousand & three    
for getting most of the cheesy references to last century    
& even laughing aloud (albeit dubiously)     as you’ve
been all the while vaunting the previous night’s travesty
of red flannel covered in Mickey Mouse heads    
purple soccer shorts     & magenta knee-high socks    
& for not onlyseeming not to mind your ensemble    
but also refraining from being put out by the three-inch-
long grey whisker sticking bolt straight out of your temple    
from whence it had migrated     undiscovered     until crossing    
the evidentiary vista’s periphery

The evident shape of Risen could be either a waxing or waning moon, a sail (recall the opening allusion to Moby Dick) or a pregnant paunch. The poem bows outward toward the right hand margin, fertile, the lines motioning into myth. There is talk of the body, magma, moon song “like the shape of her burning / a song like her mouth” song that rises, like inspiration that rises like the down-trodden, like the pain which rises with child birth, the pain of emotion, trauma. It is one of the more complex poems, open to symbolic interpretation, deeply personal, yet accessible through a universal dream-like, mythological lens. The poem reminds me of a line by Hart Crane in the poem Voyages: “Her undinal vast belly moon ward bends.” There-in completing the relationship between the moon, ocean, pregnancy, emotion.

The Death’s Head’s Testament is an erudite, intimate, inviting set of poems, full of turns, motioning like an unsettled ocean, yet discovering peace in detail, memory, family, whilst constantly shifting the reader through an evidently busy & thoughtful mind, not bogged down, but seeing the potential in duty, in the responsibility to family; these poems are tender, full of rehearsed, unique memories that you want to be involved in. There’s a whole life here to engage with.

You can pre-order a copy of The Death’s Head’s Testament here at the Main Street Rag’s home page. To stay up to date with Stephanie’s publications, you can visit her blog.

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12 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on SLHARPERPOETRY and commented:
    WOW!
    The inimitably brilliant, insightful, and sensitive Daniel Paul Marshall has written a gorgeous review of my new chapbook, The Death’s-Head’s Testament! Please take a look, and consider pre-ordering a copy for just $6.50 each!

  2. Daniel, your reading of my poems in this collection is so deeply touching! I especially love your interpretation of Andreas as a transmutation of difficult, rote learning into “something feasible, interesting,” as an incarnate contextualization of language, and even an exegesis of the (poetic!) function of metaphor in language. You get me. The way delved in and found my subconscious impulses significant enough to exhume and even celebrate — well, it just floors me! Thank you! Thank you! This means the world to me!

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