Book Review

One of the defining characteristics of “the modern” has long been a heightened consciousness of its evolutionary position in history, a place whose cultural context encourages a reassessment of our sources of literary authority. Hard to imagine a future poetry that will be anything but modern in this specific sense, especially given political, economic, and technological upheavals that press so urgently upon our imaginations.  Such tensions serve as the necessary angels of our time, and yet it has long been the role of poetry to interrogate the status quo, including its own. In this spirit, the impulse to go back into a history to bring to the conversation something we dare not forget remains a critical component to understanding our age. I am thinking not only of the horrors of Vietnam, but also of a concurrent aesthetic that, while tending toward the “primitive” with its plain-spoken introspection and efficiency of essentials, infused an era of political tension and rebellion with a psychological gaze whose candor and intensity of purpose resists ideological reduction.

Stefan Lovasik’s powerful new book, The Latitude of a Mercy, brings to mind a deep image aesthetic invoked by the book’s epigraph from James Wright: “Out of the horror there arises a musical ache that is beautiful.” The statement in our cultural moment might feel out of place to those who have either relativized beauty into conceptual extinction or seen it as a spirit of transcendence (a movement “out” or “away”) unsuited to the needs of those who suffer patterns of exclusion. Lovasik’s book offers an alternative vision whose time, long after the flood of Vietnam literature from the 70s and 80s, has come again. His is a testament of trauma that never ends, but continues to yield a lifelong desire for the wisdom of the psyche and the consolations of the beautiful as a matter of survival. Such objects of desire constitute, as the title of the book suggests, “the latitude of a mercy”—not mercy generally speaking but a mercy more individually, precisely framed, a blessing of which the book stands as an example.

The primary force of the poems lies in their immediacy, their lack of pretense, their physical immanence, the cognitive speed of their primary diction, the humanizing satisfactions at the level of emotional complexity, and a sharp, emphatic music. It is easy to miss, in an art that wears its art lightly, the many resources of the beautiful, how the ache of it would make horror, to some undetermined measure, bearable, though never, of course, acceptable. Such beauty opens the eye, allowing for a negative capability, a capacity to live with uncertainties raised by traumatic memory. The book rejects a subcategory of ideological criticism that sees “beauty” as occasion for complacency. Rather, music and metaphor conspire to include the abject and uncomfortable.

Accordingly, Lovasik’s poems gesture bravely toward the speaker’s own shame and shadow, issues sorely in need of reexamination wherever fear understandably occasions a custodial relation to identity performance. The poem “Persona,” for instance, interrogates the universal need for such performance, in light of trauma’s illumination of the distance of a mask:

I fashion it with fragments of bone and wire:

An image crafted so well,
So clean,
So foul.

This hard film of skin
I know too well: my tough fool of zeroes,

The life like a language of one vowel.

The first conceptual surprise here is the word “foul.” As a persona construct, the poem itself includes features of “shadow”—a concept with greater cultural currency in the 70s. In analytical psychology, the shadow represents the potential for thought and action at odds with values, so most people labor to hide it, but Lovasik’s book labors to expose it.

Such is the spirit of wisdom implicit in depth psychology that has much to teach us still. In this spirit, the ideal of nakedness, however unobtainable, appears throughout the volume as the pretext for a more genuine way to deal with trauma. The rage against terror is thus infused with protest against what the poem “Father” calls “the incessive vapid chatter of pretense, the poverty, the piety.” This said, even the talking cure has its limits. As Lovasik states in “The Alchemy of Age,” “Some things are better left buried deep.” But even this admission suggests a sensibility capable of containing opposites and thereby refusing dogma.

Lovasik’s work longs for an inclusiveness of vision and representation of human character, while knowing a full account remains out of reach, impossible to make into a verbal construct. The “noise/ that splits you in two” in the opening poem, “Contact,” resonates as an abiding force of restless animation through the volume. In the poem “Monkey,” for instance, the speaker breaks into two selves, one of whom has greater alterity and capacity for surprise, infused with elements of both the holy and profane. The monkey figures as a reduction of the psyche that, in another sense, embodies a radical inclusion:

Please say hello to my monkey
my funny monkey
my smiling monkey
brutal monkey

In this example, the sacred presence of the brutal expresses its position in the unconscious as operating beyond volition. It gives voice to trauma’s power to both divide and fuse. The monkey knows the jungle’s fruits and horrors in ways that articulate features of both the psychic complex and the animal brain. As such, it figures as a messenger of the unsaid:

We are the language not spoken
that place where opposites disappear

the moonless jungle within all creatures

The longing to survive becomes, post-trauma, the desire for greater intrapsychic connectivity, a wholeness akin to undifferentiated awareness, embodied in a jungle’s extremities of wonder and terror.

The book in its entirety embodies a kindred longing, born of self-division, a need to find absolution, peace of mind, however provisional, to tend wound after wound it first must open. To reclaim a measure of power over atrocity, these poems feel summoned to expose it, how the mirror of another’s body, in “The Noble Science of Trauma,” for instance, “rips into a thousand scars.” Such potent distillations of the intractable, rendered as song, offer us a terrible beauty mimetic of dissociation. Faces burn like blossoms in moments that register the mind’s efforts to bear what cannot be mastered or explained. The struggle to make sense gathers urgency in poems such as “The Alchemy of Age” where a little girl places a severed arm by the stump of a dead man’s leg “as if to complete it.” The lie of promised completion drives the book’s critical imagination, while remaining, in some animating measure, its spiritual goal.

While Lovasik’s coping instrument in “Monkey” is a form of serious play, the monkey as trickster, the neighboring poems offer a sharper edge, haunted by a more confrontational sobriety and absence of speech. “Returning to the World,” for instance, explores the power of war-torn memory to raise expectations for a redress or appeasement that never comes. Though the author prays to the waves for “something good,” “only the smell remains.” We find no transcendence here, no crowning consolation save the implicit love between friends. And, of course, the plain-spoken beauty of the poem as testament:

The bark of orders to execute
The young, small men
At close range,
The bits of skull that shot
Backward onto our lips
That shot all the way back
To Narragansett
As we fell into the sand,
Prayed for the waves, the tide
To bring us something good.

The lips that bear the carnage choose, in poems such as these, a lean rhetoric with primary qualifications that give the voice its grit. A speech of clipped rhythms and minimal qualifying elements offers no antithesis of beauty, but rather an aesthetic stripped of adornments that can make conspicuous a poem’s facility of expression, its showy exploitation of occasion. Much of the dramatic energy of the poems lies in both an intimacy of voice and a reticence—yet another expression of the miles between experience and representation.

Where pathos is strong, the immediate physicality of Lovasik’s poems favors the stark radiance of immediate presentation over ideological frame. The move to reflection, speculation, and thematic enlargement takes on a more private and therapeutic dimension, where the sustaining values are local: love, testament, forgiveness, and music. Implicit, of course, is the horror of war, but such horror does not occasion the kind of public outcry you hear in the work of Wilfred Owen. Even in the context of sharply focused physical presence, the poems take us deeper into an interior, a man alone, trying to survive spiritually and physically. As a poem of bewildered grief, “The Song of the Dead” stands out sonically with its incantatory echoes reminiscent of places of worship: “we find ourselves again, our voice again in the song of the dead alone.” The impossibility of union with the dead animates the claim, such that the speaker enters a space of communion and alienation all at once. So too, in the poem “The Prayer,” the speaker sets out not only to find a worthy prayer, but also to perceive its presence in others, including the dead:

To see the prayer written in the eyes
Of those left behind, to hold them
Until we remember nothing
But light and die into grace
As the prayer that can never be denied.

Out of trauma and its solitude comes the forging of a personal myth, a vocabulary of self-help drawn from whatever spiritual traditions will serve the search. Out of a restless pursuit of self-knowledge, the possibility of a more genuine connection. What remains is a book of tremendous power and insight, a cry and labor that affirm “the latitude of a mercy” in moments of fellowship and beauty—a “latitude” and so a sense of both freedom and its limits. This is poetry to be savored and reread for its precise language and penetrating gaze at abject cruelty and the more credible terms of recovery—qualities that are always timely, no matter their time.

About the Reviewer

Bruce Bond is the author of thirty books including, most recently, Plurality and the Poetics of Self (Palgrave, 2019), Words Written Against the Walls of the City (LSU, 2019), Scar (Etruscan, 2020), Behemoth (New Criterion Prize, Criterion Books, 2021), The Calling (Parlor, 2021), Patmos (Juniper Prize, UMass, 2021), Liberation of Dissonance (Nicholas Schaffner Award for Literature in Music, Schaffner Press, 2022), Choreomania (MadHat, 2022), Invention of the Wilderness (LSU, 2022), The Mirror, the Patch, the Telescope, (co-author, David Keplinger; MadHat, forthcoming), and Therapon (co-author, Dan Beachy-Quick; Tupelo Press, forthcoming).