In an uncommon bit of luck for readers who prefer their poetry complex yet precise, honest while filled with humor, and generous rather than cynical, Steve Scafidi has published two volumes in 2014 that build on his previous two collections and amplify their virtues. Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer (2001) and For Love of Common Words (2006), both installments in LSU’s Southern Messenger Poets Series edited by Dave Smith, introduced Scafidi’s nuanced view of the South, his uncompromising abhorrence of racial injustice, his facility with form and music, and a sense of both gratitude and realism about the world as he finds it. Although The Cabinetmaker’s Window, also part of the Southern Messenger Poets Series, and To the Bramble and the Briar, co-winner of the 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, extend many of the formal and thematic characteristics of the poet’s first two volumes, they do so in a more focused way. Scafidi has organized The Cabinetmaker’s Window by focusing on his work as a cabinetmaker in West Virginia and has offered poetry readers something completely new in his concentration on the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln in To the Bramble and the Briar. These new collections reveal a poet long since come into his own but still growing and restless in the burgeoning of his enormous talent. Surpassing—or encompassing—Scafidi’s technical virtuosity, fertile imagination, and lyric sensibility, the poet’s great gift is empathy for his subject and for his reader. Through humor, an imagination as fertile as any contemporary poet’s, a lyric sensitivity that grows with each collection, and precise and delicate imagery, Scafidi engages his readers in the lives and places he encounters. His poems do what poems are supposed to do: enable the reader to experience life as the poet does.
Among the qualities that might be called upon to witness a writer’s gift for empathy, humor is too often given short shrift. It is deemed a condiment to be served with more generous and healthy portions of solemnitude. Scafidi, however, uses humor not as a way to call attention to himself or to complement some larger and more worthy aim. And he never uses it to reprimand, satirize, or condescend. Rather, Scafidi embraces humor as an aspect of life just as meaningful as its disappointments. In a line of poets including Rodney Jones, Andrew Hudgins, and R. T. Smith, Scafidi espouses a nuanced view of the South that refuses to dismiss what is beautiful as penance for the region’s real and lingering shame.
Humor is important in each of Scafidi’s first four books. Few readers will forget, for example, the poet’s “Ode to the Perineum” in For Love of Common Words. In the first poem in The Cabinetmaker’s Window, Scafidi introduces readers to the ambience of a cabinetmaker’s workshop in “Sometimes There Is a Shit Smell Everywhere.” Although some of his poems, like this one, contain laugh-out-loud moments, e.g. the poet’s description of “ass-pine which stinks when you cut it / and you have to run away a little and say damn,” Scafidi usually employs humor to express one part of the broader reality he describes (17-18). But the poet’s aim is seldom humor alone. Continuing his olfactory introduction of the cabinetmakers’ shop, he clarifies:
This is not humor as condiment but evidence of the speaker’s embrace of the variety of life experience. The poet here frames the setting through humor but makes it clear that place is not frivolous. On the contrary, the sense of place has about it an air of permanence, “something sober and holy ” (21).
Upon reading “Pig Fucker’s Wife”—even just the title—readers might be excused for questioning the assertion that Scafidi does not write humorous poems solely for the sake of the comedy. Perhaps even the poet would disagree. It is possible that readers will never again come across a litany of nicknames as engaging as those sprinkled throughout this poem: “and China Boy is a name Chris despises though / it is better than One Eyed Fuck Face and so / China Boy in his turn named someone else // Little Baby Jesus" (13-16). Further introductions are made to Kevin Cabin, Malmo, Iron Man, Drizzle Drip, and Dude. Regardless of whether the names are genuine names of the speaker’s co-workers, the list is hilarious and made more so by Scafidi’s enjambment-based pacing and colloquial diction. Yet the feeling one is left with in that brief chiming silence at the end of the poem is that of the camaraderie that exists in this workplace and the affection these men feel for one another, even as they miss those who have left that place for other endeavors. This is not a mechanical humor employed as one more element of craft but rather an acknowledgment that relationships are made whole when they encompass the spectrum of human emotions.
Every Scafidi poem reveals a surprise. Sometimes it is the humor, which is inescapable. Other times it is an arrestingly precise image. And often it is the realization, after the first or second reading, of how thoroughly the poet infuses his poems with music, particularly internal rhyme. Of all the resonant images in The Cabinetmaker’s Window, one that shows just how acute an observer Scafidi is may be found in “Lines for the Atrium of a High School,” a meditation on light and love dedicated to the poet’s wife, Kathleen. He describes the epiphany of a high school boy: “He is perhaps sixteen when he sees it: / light pooling in the little bowl of the collarbone of a girl / walking through the hallway of the school” (4-6). Any reader unconvinced of Scafidi’s inventiveness and vision until this point must surely be convicted now. And the narrator goes on to describe the jostling of teenagers in the hallway with a marvelous description that provides even more texture to the image. The students are “giddy in their / despairs before the day begins” (11-12). This is a poet who sees and feels.
Scafidi is also a poet who hears. His devotion to heightening the plain diction he usually employs by embedding musical elements in his poems is unusual these days. Instead of relying on harsh syntactical juxtapositions, inexplicable intrusions of space, or other verbal gymnastics, Scafidi remembers that poems cannot be separated from music. One of the best examples from The Cabinetmaker’s Window is the tenth poem in the third section, “You Should, Said Socrates, Sing a Charm over Him Everyday Until You Have Charmed Away His Fears.” It is clear in this poem that the speaker is the poet and that the poet is battling his existential fears: “What will be done with all // the life we will leave? What is it we become?”(9-10). Following the suggestion of Socrates, then, the poet writes a poem that is a charm. It incorporates rhyme and repetition, arcs of sound and meaning. Consider the first two lines—“The skeleton of a cobra, the tooth of St. Paul, / the bright blue tunic of Sappho”—and then the final eight:
In seven tercets, Scafidi pronounces a charm to ward off his existential fears. Internal rhymes predominate. Although the poet’s appreciation of sound, particularly rhyme, is apparent in every poem in the volume, nowhere else does a poem itself reference music’s ability to charm and to heal.
Forced to choose a single poem from this volume that shows why Scafidi is becoming a singular voice in contemporary poetry, one would be well-advised to consider “Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze—.” In this poem Scafidi allows the reader to experience the tension between the speaker’s fervent desire to give thanks for “what arrives today” and his acknowledgment of death’s inevitability (18). This is a prayer and an ontological exploration that begins with a scene that will call to mind the opening of William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.” Confronting the horror of an animal’s death on the road, the speaker thanks God for the sight of the dead deer:
The speaker then declares that “being is a lathe and we are the turning / curving shape of what I come to praise” (9-10). This poem will call readers back repeatedly, and the closing lines show why:
If The Cabinetmaker’s Window is exemplary in its use of precise imagery, lyricism, and humor, then Scafidi’s To the Bramble and the Briar is his most imaginative work to date. The fertility of Scafidi’s imagination is apparent in each of his four collections; however, To the Bramble and the Briar exhibits something new in his work. Unlike Scafidi’s other three books, To the Bramble and the Briar addresses the life and times of a single historical figure, Abraham Lincoln. Although The Cabinetmaker’s Window was framed by the woodworker’s shop, the subject was broad enough for the poet to gather into those poems diverse material related to work, home, and hearth. To the Bramble and the Briar, however, focuses intently on Lincoln. The intensity of the focus, however, does nothing to bridle the poet’s imagination. Instead, the focus on a single personality seems to give Scafidi permission to ramp up the engines of his imagination and drive straight into the realm of the fantastic. Although many of the poems in this volume begin with scenes that have an historical basis, they often move into imagined scenes in a way that makes it difficult to determine which portions bear the weight of historical evidence and which do not. Of course, that is not really the point.
Divided into three untitled fifteen-poem sections, this volume marks subtle changes in Scafidi’s style. Gone are the long and descriptive titles. Instead, the titles here consist uniformly of the definite article and a one-word noun: “The Tar,” “The Well,” “The Torches,” etc. Scafidi also uses noticeably shorter lines in this collection, and readers may at first detect a diminishment of the abundant lyricism of the first three volumes. But multiple readings will demonstrate not a diminished lyric sensibility but perhaps a more subtle one.
This is nowhere more evident than in poems like “The Hatchet” (18). The poem begins by describing Sarah, Lincoln’s sister, in terms of the qualities of locust wood and continues with Lincoln as a boy helping to build locust-wood coffins for his mother and sister. It ends with a description of the young Lincoln’s rage: “. . . Abraham / kills everyone in Indiana in his head // with a hatchet before the day is done. / From the prairie grass north to / the bramble and the briar of home” (19-23). Besides the poet’s inventive portrayal of the future president’s overwhelming anger, the careful reader will note that Scafidi continues to employ the internal rhyme familiar from his other three volumes of poetry. In “The Hatchet,” soft “un” sounds begin in the early stanzas (spoken, open, sun, coffin). Their frequency increases beginning in the third stanza and changes tone with the addition of hard final consonants and frequent repetition: tongued, rung, muck, brung, sung. The sounds and the narrative pull the reader inexorably downward through the poem to the final horrific image: “Covered in blood, the boy inside / the boy begins while the hymns are sung” (24-25).
The most obvious kind of surprise in To the Bramble and the Briar is found in the poems’ stories. Some of the narrative twists are based on facts that are not particularly well-known and perhaps embellished a bit by the poet. The book opens this way, with “The Cradle (Autumn 1901)” describing the actual event when Lincoln’s coffin was opened to verify that Lincoln’s body was inside before the coffin was reburied and encased in concrete. In the final two stanzas, though, the poet writes about what was not reported and describes one of the workers reaching into the coffin and touching a mole on the corpse. He goes further by relaying what the worker said about that event: “He said it felt like / the shock he got as a boy in a storm he thought was over. / Electric, but colder. A bee sting, burning ice and smolder” (22-24). Scafidi takes an historical event, embellishes it with something that could have been true, and ends the opening poem in the volume with the idea that the events that led to Lincoln’s death are a continuing storm in this country.
Scafidi’s imaginative prowess is even more powerfully displayed in poems like “The Calvary,” in which Lincoln admires seven flying appaloosas which are eventually purchased by his War Department and later shot down over Sharpsburg, and “The Kite,” which begins with a description of kites being flown on the South Lawn of the White House on National Kite Day and ends as a sixteen-year old slave girl flies away in a swordfish kite, “gone forever // from her owner who / scratched his head” as she flies northward against a headwind (33-35). The remarkable thing about the wildly imaginative moments in these and other poems in To the Bramble and the Briar is that they not only add an element of fascination to an already engrossing narrative—it is Lincoln, after all—but that they also serve as a platform from which Scafidi proclaims the dominant tone of this book, which is an odd combination of pessimism and hope. The slave girl does escape in her fabulous kite, but she flies against a headwind that still blows.
Lincoln’s story—the public and the private sides—is a tragic one. Scafidi’s success in portraying the complexity of Lincoln depends on the poet’s appreciation for the man, not just the public figure. “The Wheelbarrow” shows this as much as any poem in the book. The narrator describes Lincoln, following the deaths of his brother, his mother, his sister, and one of his sons, contemplating how beauty survives in the face of tragedy. “He wondered / about daylilies / and the onion / domes of churches // in the East. How / could such forms / surge so gracefully / out of the earth?” (9-16). The poem then asks the central question of the volume: “When dying is / our direction, / how do we go on?” (17-19). And the vision of Lincoln, and by extension Scafidi’s, is clarified in the closing quatrain: “. . . He could / see underneath / every blessing / was a shadow” (37-40).
Scafidi’s humor and imaginative license are not intended as irreverence. Rather, the stories of the private Lincoln help the reader identify more closely with a figure whose humanity is often veiled by his continuing historical and political significance. Mary Todd Lincoln figures prominently in the book, too. Scafidi’s depiction of her as warm and passionate and deeply in love with Lincoln gives rise to an empathy for Lincoln that readers might not otherwise experience. In “The Dwarf,” for example, Mary is a generous hostess proud to throw a party celebrating the marriage of Thom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, two celebrities whom many readers might at first believe to be imaginary. Scafidi has brought this historical event to life with his mischievous sense of humor. Mary . . .
Scafidi comments on the tenderness between the president and his wife in “The Bride,” calling them “[t]wo old / friends who practiced / delight in the dark to / the end” (21-24). Even more spectacular, and confirming Scafidi’s imaginative energy, is the splendid eroticism of “The Wine,” in which Abraham and Mary are depicted in a way most readers will have never considered.
To be sure, To the Bramble and the Briar includes poems drawing on other and evocative historical figures and events, including Ulysses S. Grant, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. As powerful as those poems are, as deftly as they raise issues of race and the complicated nature of Lincoln’s handling of them, the personal poems—the poems of loss, love, and compassion—are the ones that propel this book and display Scafidi's genius.
To the Bramble and the Briar. By Steve Scafidi. University of Arkansas Press, 2014.
The Cabinetmaker’s Window. By Steve Scafidi. Louisiana State University Press, 2014.