The Stan Poems: Indictments & Amendments
Reviewer: Lee Rossi
The title of Linda Ravenswood’s The Stan Poems invites the reader to speculate on its ultimate meaning. Besides referring to her common-law husband, the musician and producer Stan Hillas (Jones), it also suggests something about the nature of their relationship, a “stan” being an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity (thanks Google.)
This is a book of elegies, but what exactly is being mourned? The man, who died unexpectedly at age 66? The relationship which, despite the wife’s best efforts, never flowered? A way of life that promised freedom and fulfillment but produced neither? Laments for these realities, and others, come into focus in these (mostly) long, mostly discursive poems, as they hopscotch across time and space.
Along the way, one encounters frequent ruptures of narrative, tone, and image. Emotional non-sequitur is this poet’s characteristic mode of feeling. In other words, we are in trauma territory: the trauma of unexpected death, of course, but also of relationships characterized by chaos, betrayal, and neglect. Reader beware—this is not just a record of trauma, but an attempt to reproduce its effect via art. The poet might as well inscribe a warning on the gates to her dystopia: This Is Going to Hurt!
Consider a passage (from “3 days gone”) early in the book:
you wanted to be remembered
for your watercolours —
married a turnip
instead you married a gun
& I am coming for you
let everyone know
you’ve streamed ahead
& become the night —
simple trees stand on your eyes
— all the tragedy of snowflakes
Here hyperbole serves as proxy for hysteria, threat for tenderness, confusion for confusion. The woman is not a woman but a turnip or a gun. The man is darkness, emptiness, the vast indifferent cruelty of nature.
How could it have been otherwise, you might ask, given the nature of the actors and the mise en scène: older man, younger woman, the louche Bohemia of Southern California with its optimism, amorality, and self-aggrandizing recklessness?
What kind of man is he, this older man—a musician with bad teeth, not very successful. “you didn’t know,” she observes, “if you’d ever make money / & questioned if that was important / or just for suckers” (“275 days gone”).
What kind of woman is she? Younger, hopeful, eager to make music together, middle of the night music.
What could go wrong? The man loves people, often inappropriately. “You never met a person,” she tells him, “you didn’t want to plug into / everybody wanting you / you always attracted / to everybody else / that connection / your raison d’etre.” (“275 days gone”).
Is it pathology or something more? I particularly admire the book’s canny portrayal of a certain social geography. The San Fernando Valley, home to so much of the entertainment industrial complex, comes in for particular lambasting (“107 days gone”):
/ San Fernando Valley — where everyone sucks each other off in Subaru outbacks
/ San Fernando Valley — where the Chamber of Commerce logo is a dick in a girl’s hand
/ San Fernando Valley — where everyone’s proud
even the grandmothers
even the dead . . .
/ San Fernando Valley — where white people find each other
/ San Fernando Valley — where white people eat fast food
/ San Fernando Valley — where white people think everyone
is white people /
Cantering along with her disdain for the Valley’s racist Disneyana is the poet’s rueful estimation of her own demographic cohort. In “47 days gone // Gen X Suite” she addresses her coevals:
we’re Gen X
we breed false hope …
we common law married old rockers
trust funders & bartenders
married their big hair
& big dreams
The sneer in her voice cuts several ways, charging her Gen X self with delusion and naïveté, her big-haired Boomer paramour with holding onto dreams well past their expiration date.
Yet even as the Boomers are dying, Gen X is reaching its own kind of terminus, the end of the Endless Summer, of a peculiarly American kind of innocence. Contemplating the ashes of her lover she declares (“117 days gone”):
what then is the end of Gen X /
perhaps it is
a box /
in a cool shed / …
Whatever they had together—a palpable kind of cool, a certain social swagger—ends in the chaos of death: “a police report / a sealed lawyers account / a misstep … in receivership / telltale journals / cold photographs / bladder infections … that box.”
So what’s a poet to do, especially a poet with a good story to tell? Turn her back on it? Exploit its lurid potential? Or turn it into art? Ravenswood, to her credit, chooses the third path.
Yet she does not flinch from portraying the deficiencies of the relationship and the man:
what does any man want —
as far as I can tell now
it’s about hiding
a bunch of women singing
beating laundry at river-side
Like most men, he wanted his male privilege, unwilling to do the necessary work required in a relationship, leaving it to women to clean up his mess.
Writing, then, offers the poet a kind of escape from her entanglement with the patriarchy. In “94 daze gone” she asks:
but what becomes of grief
when poetry finds itself
face to face with a career criminal
what does grief become
when poetry finds
its loved just a man
Of course not even her growing critical awareness protects her from the pain of loss.
Grief and anger are this book’s predominant tones, but we also get moments of ecstatic celebration. After the body is cremated and “reduced to a kind of heavy earth” (“45 days gone”), the poet exclaims:
you of trees —
and the places between trees —
your arms the low lying
branches of your moves in sunlight
in the glory, the eaves
the overhang of your body
windchimes the bone of you
safe for a season
A lovely passage, which signals not just a widening of perspective, but also a deepening of awareness, that life is a matter of endless transformations, one life segueing into another.
And finally (in “686 days gone”) the poet discovers a kind of resolution. Freed from the constant drama, she sees that life with Stan—that “stan” life—was filled with pain and neglect, and she can declare that:
she wants to live without drama …
where sunlight covers the living woman & she is safe
Despite a lack of the usual amenities (page numbers!, a consistent font size!), this is a compelling volume, filled with thoughtfulness, invention, humor, and insight.