Review of Steve Scafidi’s Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer by Dave Bruzina
In his first collection, Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer, the poet Steve Scafidi obsessively wonders how history, human lives and language can have meaning. For Scafidi, meaning is constantly under attack from violence, misunderstandings, ignorance, distance, time, death, and literary theory. “Someone says we are trapped in language…” he begins, in “On the Occasion of an Argument beside the River Where I Live.” “And what good is a dream finally?” he asks in “The Sublime.” He concludes:
Once was a way to escape from death. Now only a low histrionic
comedic moan of oh when someone grows old enough to know
for certain he is living and dying. And no one on earth can help
say what he has seen that rises naked and sad inside and gleams.
Despite their author’s obsession, Scafidi’s poems are neither morbid nor despairing. Haunted, yes — by an awareness of the violent history of the South in particular, of the accidents and deaths that afflict human lives, of the violence to meaning pointed out by contemporary theories of language that stress the arbitrary relationship between words and reality. For Scafidi, however, imaginative possibilities redeem a great deal. In his poem “On the Occasion of an Argument beside the River Where I Live” he begins:
Someone says we are trapped in language, and so the sun drops overhead
through the silty pines where the river explains nothing and far away now
several men and women on the Yangtze look up from their nets and point to the sky.
Bright Chinese fish, like all my words, struggle in the nets of a stranger.
Partly concealed by the surface pleasures of these lines is the essential trajectory of Scafidi’s poetry. Here, language itself—the medium in which the speaker’s imagination operates—performs a refutation of the claim “we’re trapped in language,” linking the speaker—while perhaps he still feels the weight of the claim—to strangers on the Yangtze whose fish resemble the words. Language then is demonstrably not a trap—rather, when imaginatively deployed, it allows both an escape from linguistic solipsism and a link to other people’s lives. And in that link, according to Scafidi, is the significance of the meaning of language.
The linguistic/ imaginative flight from and confrontation with problems of meaning can be found in nearly all of Scafidi’s poems and constitutes one of their chief pleasures (and, perhaps, one of the book’s chief flaws—more on this later)—thought these flights/ confrontations are not always so immediately reassuring. As Scafidi (self-referentially raves in “Ferocious Ode,”
...[The ferocious ode] grabs
children in their dreams like tigers
grab gazelles. It grabs tigers. It makes me say
the sweet convolutions of poetry are not so
sweet sometimes and my grandfather claws
the red clay walls of hell for what he did to
Here he points to the unpredictability of the unleashed imagination and to the dangers of the kind of intoxication his poems evoke. Despite their humane concerns, Scafidi’s odes are ferocious odes. In perhaps the most violent and disturbing example, “To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire,” the speaker threatens an unknown perpetrator with an ax (as five or six am, while wearing underwear, by the road in front of his house). The Southern Gothic atmosphere that lurks in many of Scafidi’s poems explodes into rage:
...I promise you I will lay the sharp blade deep
into your body until the humid grabbing hands of what must be
death have mercy and take you away from the constant
murderous swinging my mind makes my words make
swinging down on your body and may your children
weep a thousand tears at your small and bewildered grave.
Notice, however, that even here, implicit in the speaker’s threat—his act of imagining a brutal revenge and the effect it would have on his victim’s children—there is an affirmation of meaning. The revenge is imaginary and itself answers the random violence of the speaker’s truck having been set on fire; the bewilderment of the victim’s children points to the consequences of violence; the poem affirms that events and lives have meaning—even if, in this case, that meaning becomes apparent only through real or imagined loss.
Scafidi’s best poems intoxicate the reader with their leaps and long dreamlike meanderings. In perhaps the most stunning poem in this collection, “The Bee of Was,” atmosphere, philosophy, and imagery combine with an almost Stevensesque consciousness of language to result in an overpoweringly haunting and mysterious poem of loss:
The angel in the wheel and the forest in the man
and the old in the cold, cold bottomless Real
turn the world we don’t understand and turn
dirt to roses and the tiny hands of the dead
grip the levers and the handles of the machine
that lifts the lifted moon from the wide blue sea
that says “Enough, enough, it’s never enough,”
this chuff-chuff of want being is the gerund of,...
This, my favorite of Scafidi’s poems, is, like many, all one sentence. There are additional poems nearly as good in this collection, including several mentioned above: “The Sublime,” “Three Meditations on the Word Night,” and “Who Wants to Know What Love is Worth.” In “The Latitudes of Desire” the speaker’s wife
walks into the room wearing only her blue panties [...]
[...] she takes the long way to my waiting arms
through Baltimore where Edgar Poe broke a rib trying
to suck his own cock [...] she strolls through the Azores
tickling the mustache of a stranger [...] into the sudden
heat of Samarkand’s late-evening streets full of baskets,
merchants and children [...]
through centuries and countries for sixty eight long lines of a single erotic and transcending sentence, teasing and deferring, before reaching her waiting and breathless husband…
Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer, as a collection, however, fails to live up to the promise of its best inclusions. It’s primary flaw will only be apparent to those who attempt to read the book cover to cover, particularly within a relatively short period of time (Scafidi’s poems are best taken in small sips). There is a sameness to the movement of the poems: Scafidi’s speakers’ leaps—from an initial provoking problem to sweeping flights of association—become familiar, their use becomes conventional and finally monotonous. As a result, the book as a whole suffers from a lack of dynamics—particularly since those few poems that rely on alternative structures (“Elegies” for example) tend to be Scafidi’s weakest.
Let me not, however, belabor this fault. That it detracts from the enjoyment of the book does not mean it affects the pleasure of reading many, even most, of the poems in this stunning first collection. My own initial encounter with Scafidi’s “The Bee of Was”—at a reading (by an actor, not Scafidi)—remains one of the most astonishing encounters with a poem I’ve had in years and was the occasion for my acquiring the collection. And the collection is worth having. How often do our first encounters with poems lead us to seek their author’s other works?
Louisiana State University Press
Winner of the Levis Reading Prize
Paper, 80 pages