One of the pleasures of reading contemporary poetry is, for me, the varieties of experience allowed, and the ways each poet and each collection is unique. Most of the poets I read have come to my attention through social media, either via direct interaction, contact with translators, or as publications of publishers I trust. It is not that I don’t have time for classic poets, I have shelves full of poetry collections, but I’m most interested in calling attention, in my own modest way, to newer, short, single author volumes.
I came to know of Prague-based writer, Stephan Delbos several years ago when I read his co- translation of Czech surrealist poet Vítěslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger. But his first full-length collection, Light Reading is my first introduction to his own distinctive verse.
Delbos is a minimalist. Upon opening this handsomely presented volume, the first thing you notice is that placement is critical; words seem hang suspended in empty space. The word “light” in the title of the book and its first section, refers to both tone and openness. The poems are spare, often exceptionally so. One is simply a semi-colon, some a word or two, others a few scant stanzas, but in each instance, the words act in concert with a title set at the lower righthand corner of the page. It is the title that completes the image, renders the impact—offering insight, or humour, or both. Notes at the back of the book illuminate the sources of many of these pieces, adding another level of meaning. But to attempt reproduce any of these fleeting poems can be no more than an approximation given the limitations of online space. Here are three:
. if only
. all life
. were so
§. §On Coatracks
. in tiny pieces
. tiny parts
. i whose
. broke pillows
. sleep under
. paper sheets
. §Fragments (Keepsake)
The poems of the second section, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” take the form of poetic riffs on the French term meaning a “trifle,” typically associated with short musical compositions. Dedicated to a variety of figures—political, literary, philosophical, musical—paired with an instrument or two, these poems have the widest sweep, but the imagery is still spare, restrained, and carefully modulated. Here the poet pays tribute to Václav Havel, slips through the streets of Prague, and explores avenues filled with memories, sounds and language. These are the longest pieces in the collection, and yet few fill more than a single page and physical arrangement and space—or silence—is, as in the earlier section, an essential element, imbuing each composition with its own volume and rhythmic energy. Delbos, who has written plays about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, demonstrates an inherent musicality in these poetic bagatelles. Take, for example, the opening of “Bagatelle for Throat Singers, Baton & Player Piano”:
I am a terrible Buddhist
. my love you are a magnificent adversary
on the anniversary of
. our first nervous kiss on a sidewalk where
garbage cans held fish
. -bones, failed ficuses, Orangina bottles,
our alcohol the pilot
. light of love; this was supposed to be
. the impossible tightrope possibility.
The third and final part of Light Reading, “Arrangements,” consists of a series of ten sets of ten poetry prompts. The first of these begins:
- A poem in terza rima
- A poem of 18 lines
- A poem containing the phrase coin slot
- A poem rhyming beguile and tinfoil
- A poem with two mirrored meanings
while another (<V>) prescribes:
- A poem that cannot hear itself think
- A poem getting on my last nerve
- A poem huffing oxygen
- A poem title is the last line
- A poem with seven monorhymed lines
- A poem curing emphysema
In reading this collection I had the feeling that these poems, these condensed, precise evocations of the possibilities—and limitations of language—seemed to be coming into being on the page, speaking to ghosts, alluding to the unutterable, to the moment captured in the empty spaces. Unconfined, open-ended and illuminating, Light Reading is a work that leaves plenty of room for exploration. And enjoyment.
Light Reading by Stephan Delbos is published by Blaze Vox Books.