Review of Sufficiency of the Actual by Kevin Stein, University of Illinois Press, 2009. By Mark Liebenow.
Sufficiency of the Actual is Kevin Stein’s fifth book of poems. During the day, he teaches English at Bradley University. After hours, Stein works as the poet laureate of Illinois, traveling around the state and engaging elementary and high school students in the challenges and joys of writing poetry.
Stein wants us to pay attention to the history and people he’s unearthed, the riffs of cultural reference, and what they evoke in us. In “Autumnal,” Stein connects history and the personal with an account from his teenage years when the Vietnam War was tearing into American society, and he felt the need to respond without knowing how. The poem leads others to remember their own disjointed attempts:
Some things you do you wish you hadn’t.
Some you don’t you wish you had.
It’s years before you know the difference,
so what good’s remorse?
Ethical struggles are expanded into the larger matters of history, religion and culture. The big-ticket items of love, sexuality, war and death are brought down to the personal level, as when Death makes its presence felt in a miscarriage, whose name is spoken “only in the bathroom / with the water running.”
The focus is often on what separates us from history, each other, even our selves, the distances that naturally exist as well as those we protectively create. History is not what happened to someone else, he quotes Bob Marley as saying in the epigraph, it’s what happened to us. And we won’t know who we are until we remember who we’ve been. In “Mars’ Karma” we somberly realize that humans haven’t grown much over the centuries, because we still kill each other with the same bloodthirsty rage of the ancient and civilized Romans.
In the poem about filling out the viewing record for the Nielsen ratings, Stein says that we separate our public and private selves by writing down what we think we should be watching, like programming on PBS, instead of what we really view, Oprah, South Park and Cops. In “Appetites Earthly and Other,” our desires struggle against our noble intentions and generally win our attention, but sometimes compassion succeeds in selfless acts of devotion. Humor appears throughout, as in “Lovesong Ending with ( ),” and sexuality shows up in poems like “Aesthetics of Desire:”
I love the way things open,
the fervid shudder and release that breathes relinquish,
a lover tonguing your ear.
Another gap exists in religion where we realize that how we talk about faith to others is far different than how we live it. The poem “In Human Hands” encourages us to look at how well, and how poorly, we hold to our beliefs, feeling caught between our hope that faith is real and our fear that it isn’t:
I lived the abyss between reach
inferring therefrom the necessity
This, the wager one makes in Confession,
whose supplication’s less atonement than fear
The poems in the book cover a wide range of people and topics, and include Herodotus and Wittgenstein, the Mountain Man Rendezvous, Slinkys and Schwinns, Bob Marley, factory workers, rock ‘n’ roll, the H-bomb, NASCAR and Mozart, Iraq, the Grateful Dead, JFK and Nixon, Viagra, Propecia and Rogain. It feels like we’re on a cultural history tour, with the author pointing out the signposts we’ve forgotten and showing how they connect us to each other.
Stein addresses our struggles to be who we think we should be, while trying to accept who we actually are. There are the wistful meanderings of what might have been, the tumblings of heart, and the honest, midlife realization that although we’re not where we expected to be, where we are is okay.
Kevin Stein is the author of four previous poetry collections of poetry, two books of literary criticism (Private Poets, Worldly Acts, Ohio University Press, 1996; and James Wright: The Poetry of a Grown Man, Ohio University Press, 1989), and two poetry anthologies Illinois Voices and Bread & Steel, the latter an audio CD. A new book of essays, Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age, will be released by the University of Michigan Press in 2010. Recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize, Stein is Illinois Poet Laureate and Caterpillar Professor of English at Bradley University.