Book Review

With a haunting nostalgia that wrestles the past into the present, Stuart Dischell’s The Lookout Man is wise and reminiscent of the best of Frost and Auden. Dichell’s poems bring readers elegies and odes written to honor life and history: men of the early twentieth century navigating a new language, ships at sea forgotten by those who live inland, evolutionary progress, brave young women who use their bodies as instruments of change. Contemporary and contemplative, combining chaos with quiet, The Lookout Man is a collection that places Dischell among poetic greats like Serhiy Zhadan and Patrick Phillips.

Many of Dischell’s poems transport readers to another time, and one such poem is “The Foreigner.” It opens with the Frost-like line “It is snowing in a city where it almost always snows.” The speaker then envisions his grandfather, “broke but dressed in a modern suit, / In a hat and long coat, holds an umbrella—.” The noir-like scene continues, but readers must rely on narrative clues to shape the image. The speaker provides few intimate details about the grandfather, simply describing him as “A man of the early twentieth century” who “asks in your language if he might / Have one of your cigarettes, and you give him two.” Here, the poem separates into the second stanza:

He wants to place the extra one you gave him
In the silver case in his pocket I have kept safe.
But for now, you take a cigarette yourself,
And he lights it for you with a match he has
Kept dry in his long coat pocket.

An act of kindness and generosity transcends language barriers and cultural differences as two strangers share a moment by smoking a cigarette and watching snow fall. Dischell’s direct language captures the intimacy and offers a moment of redemption, no matter the previous wrongs one may have committed.

“Lines About Ships at Sea” offers readers a chance to remember their insularity. The poem’s opening line–“People who live inland forget about ships at sea”—is bold and direct, echoing the language in “The Foreigner.” However, instead of summoning the past, the poem’s speaker details everything from “massive smokestacks and tall decks” to battleships “With their eternal bad karma.” The ships become living cities on water where “The captain has a pleasant smile and keeps / His hand locked in a permanent wave, / Like Admiral Byrd frozen at the Pole.” The speaker challenges readers to reconsider what they know of their own existence and what is important to them by considering the existence of others. The poem’s most eloquent lines are its conclusion: “Sometimes in the night one hears the whistle of a train, / But it’s nothing like the horn of a ship in the fog at sea.” These lines are a jarring, much-needed call for something of which everyone needs more—empathy. The speaker philosophically reiterates the importance of being able to see beyond one’s own existence and experience in order to understand another’s. One can perceive the land as being what is readily tangible and comprehensible, while the sea evokes a sense of distance and mystery. For some, this sense of distance, of mystery might be similar to what one might feel when they encounter something they have never seen or experienced—a sympathy with what isn’t known.

Occasionally, the poems in The Lookout Man possess a humorous turn. “Lines of Evolutionary Progress” is a fourteen-line gem portraying the evolutionary progression of humankind. Initially, it makes the usual, maybe even stereotypical, associations one might make with a poem about evolution. The “Creatures of the earth” straighten, grow taller, and no longer drag their knuckles. They thrive in the brutality of the hunter-gatherer existence: “We liked the taste of meat, / And it made our brains and bodies strong.” Just as the poem builds and the speaker observes, “Some of us drew their deeds in caves / And list our walls with rendered fat,” the poem descends into a first-person confession. The speaker’s usage of “I” breaks down a fourth wall of sorts, and they confess “I don’t want to stand up,” a rebellious personal statement surprising readers. The speaker’s personal rebellion grows even more defiant: “I want to lie / Here in a lawn chair and pretend.” The poem’s humorous turn occurs in the final lines, when the speaker admits they want to pretend they are at the “Tahiti Bar in St. Tropez / Where rich people go naked in the sunshine.”

Other poems, like “For Oksana Shachko,” read as though they are interviews snipped or copied from the current events section in any print or digital newspaper. Written for Oksana Shachko, the young Ukrainian woman and artist who founded FEMEN, the poem is a confessional ode, a testament to one woman’s bravery. The poem’s interesting element is its reliance on first-person statements. The speaker opens the poem stating, “I am Oksana Shachko, yet / I cannot be her because I am not.” The poem twists and turns through its enjambment, which wrestles readers headfirst into the speaker’s admiration for Shachko and her bravery. The speaker confesses, “I wish I were Oksana Shachko because / In this life I did not mean to / Fit the body of a man.” The speaker’s dysphoric admittance pushes the poem as the speaker recognizes that there are elements of Shachko which they do not want to possess:

But never did I want to be a nun

Or learn to paint icons, or

Protest on the roofs of public

Monuments or occupy cathedrals.

The speaker continues, and the line enjambment reinforces the speaker’s confusion: “I am nonetheless Oksana / Shachko, her naked body the instrument / Of social justice. In underpants.” They describe Shachko as the “Reconstructed Jesus.” The poem’s starkest, and darkest, admissions come in its final stanza, where the speaker absorbs the news of Shachko’s suicide. The speaker’s language becomes more direct as the stanza tapers to the line “And her voice caught in my throat,” and challenges readers to bear witness in their own, individual way to the events that shape them.

The Lookout Man concludes with a Transcendentalist anthem, “Lines Along a Wild Place.” Structured in a minimalist form of eight couplets, “Lines Along a Wild Place” places the road less traveled in an entirely new direction. Blending observation, narrative, and confession, the poem opens with the blunt statement, “I walked through the enterprise of weeds.” The “enterprise of weeds” gives way to “A crow for each of us mounted on a fence.” The speaker’s mere observations are a tipping point in the poem, giving way to confesions like “Sometimes I miss everyone I ever loved.” Nonetheless, for the speaker, nature’s serenity provides a counterbalance to loss: “Leaves of the magnolia, their names like blossoms / And their lives once so real and fragrant.”  Interjected into the highly emotional observances of magnolias is the speaker’s humorous acknowledgement “If my dog were alive he might piss on them, // And I would have to yell at him not to / If anyone were around.” The speaker, and the poem, embody an Emersonian approach as their emotional, even intellectual, reliance on nature grows: “I will ask the dogwoods to remind me.” This reliance is full and satisfying, and it leaves readers wanting to impulsively wander deep into the woods, bask in the sun, and take in everything nature, and poetry, can offer.

About the Reviewer

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.