You Can Judge This Book by Its Cover: Trees of the Twentieth Century by Stephen Sturgeon

I confess: I bought Stephen Sturgeon’s debut poetry collection, Trees of the Twentieth Century, published by Dark Sky Press – entirely because of the cover. The design, by Boo Gilder and Adrienne Antonson, is sleek and modern and well, entirely to my liking. And it just so happens that with books, and especially with poetry, the cover is often what sells the book.  As it did for me in this case.

And as it often does, my shallowness paid off for me here. Sturgeon’s book was a surprise in the best possible way. I sat down to read it and realized immediately that I was staring at a small selection of serious talent. Sturgeon’s Trees is much more than a debut. It is a revelation, an entirely new thing, and at the same time feels a bit like coming home. That’s because Sturgeon’s voice is part prophet, part fierce cynic–a synthesis of Blake and Eliot, with a bit of Stevens in there as well. These poems are difficult, nourishing examinations of perception, of memory, of culture, of love, of connection and loss and disillusionment. Of the dull/sharp duality of modern society, and a fondness for the old ways lost. Sturgeon cleverly lays in allusions to his poetical predecessors, with nods populating the poems like, “come into the garden-city, love/away, come away.”

These poems read like beautiful new music built over the old, with stanzas like this one in “Gourmand”:

People saw me a starving criminal
and mildly kicked me, or flicked me crumbs,
while I etched a new map of the world
inside my roving mouth.

And Sturgeon’s gift with words, with repetition and form and sound and playful lightness contrasted with solemn weight, is apparent throughout the collection as well. Another example, from “La Ballade du phasme:”

Black Moon snuck behind an Oriental screen.
Poor Miss Black Moon jitterbugs and unseen
spies occasion to whistle and unwind,
when her invitation is maligned.
When she falls, black moon sinks along the shine,

says What the world is this. Isn’t mine.

The poems are at their most lovely, most deadly, most achingly sad when Sturgeon’s ghosts of the past hang side by side with the wrecked modern world. My favorite poem in the collection, “Epistola Cantabrigiensis” seemed to me a more compact, softer echo of Ginsberg’s Howl or Eliot’s The Waste Land.  A sigh for modern life instead of a scream, it pins the heart to the wall just the same with lines like, “Going between two places, I never want to arrive, and would rather go on, perpetually a passenger,” and later “I don’t care that life will end in an explosion of guilt and cancer./Criticism is rarely not for clowns.”

Much like the trees on the cover of his debut collection, Sturgeon’s poems here are jagged, jarring, yet strikingly beautiful with a melody, and order all their own. We recognize them, we recognize what they mourn, we recognize in them what we, too, have lost and what and who has gone this way before. And yet in that recognition, something stubborns shouts and sings of a new thing, a new way of speaking about it, and a path that hasn’t been tried as we try to find our way out of this thicket of memory and cultural detritus. I’d highly recommend picking up a copy of Trees and traveling that twisted path yourself.

5 thoughts on “You Can Judge This Book by Its Cover: Trees of the Twentieth Century by Stephen Sturgeon

  1. This stuff is pretentious BS! Just what we need another white middle class poet complaining about life and the advantages they have/had, and wasted.

    • Hi, H. I definitely don’t think Sturgeon’s poems are pretentious, and I don’t know that he’s middle-class or really anything about him– but of course you’re absolutely entitled to your opinion. Everyone’s taste is different. But that said, if you’re looking for a working class poet, you couldn’t do better than Phillip Levine – he’s from Detroit originally, and writes really movingly about his experiences working at an auto factory, his working class family and neighborhood, etc. The Nicholas Coles/ Janet Zandy anthology American Working Class Literature is really terrific if you’re looking to discover more working class poets and writers of all colors and background, immigrant and native-born. Peter Oresick also has an anthology – forget what it’s called but I think it’s Working Classics? – and that has some wonderful poetry by a very diverse set of poets. Hope you find some good stuff!

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