Reviewed by Cate Whetzel
The Southern Messenger Poets series has done it again with Steve Scafidi’s exquisitely taut second book of poetry, For Love of Common Words. The collection is an ongoing exercise in defamiliarization, the moment when you wake to an eerie, dark afternoon after a long sleep and cannot decide whether it’s morning or night. Scafidi’s poems exist in a between-place, where any conclusions the sleeper may come to are honest, but essentially wrong. Although several poems in the collection do not practice this sleight-of-hand, preferring the straightforward approach, Scafidi’s skill in this deft switch is like the lion tamer’s and the physician’s: obdurate but coaxing, a bait and a salve. The poems’ narratives balance between two worlds, one of almost magical potential that ignores history and its precedent, and “the given world”—our world with its unbearable shortcomings.
For Love of Common Words pulls us through fantastic landscapes—a well-heeled bear on his way to a wedding; a pitchfork floating tines-up, “iconic as a statue of Mary / in a pilgrim’s mind”; and a murdered boy remembered through another boy trapped inside a pumpkin at the county fair; all are images from what we might call (to steal a title from the book’s remarkable first poem) the “Life Story of the Possible.” Essentially formal, the verse and controlled rhymes guide us across this hilly dream terrain, and the poems themselves tread on uneasy ground, making us ask whether we have inadvertently walked into a requiem or a wake—do we grieve for the sake of grieving, or do we delight in the metaphysical mixed bag of emotions that result from loss?
Through fairytales, the news, natural history, and domesticity, Scafidi wants to show us what it means to have a love of common decency, to recognize and differentiate beauty from illusion, and to hate horror, “that common murderous evil bitch.” Elegiac in tone and often in subject, these poems hope, in spite of themselves, that the universe will deliver better than we suppose. In “For Love of Common Things,” the speaker wishes for the newly departed Czeslaw Milosz a “beautiful / Lithuanian quarter of / heaven where one is allowed to question / and grow doubtful and argue with friends and smoke,” and, in a final turn recalling Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” the poem’s speaker prays:
and if there is a heaven of any kind Oh lord let it be
this city where the poet undresses
tonight and swims
in the river while the mermaid plays
a ukulele and calls to him under the silver trees.
The moments where Scafidi really shines are in his longer poems meditating on awkward moments of beauty, self-conscious lyrics bordering on frustrated narrative. In one of my favorite poems, “To My Infant Child on a Winter Night,” which is certainly doing homage to Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” the father instructs his infant:
…Child, do this—watch—make a small tight fist
and shake it at the sky. The night is an idiot and blind, bigger
than your mother and I and we defy it with you
and this is really no way to welcome you to the shimmering
lilac of being here but talking like this is all I know.
Amid these moments of ardent hope and great scenery comes absurdity, exaggerated into poems fueled by fury and an uncommon decency, one in which Scafidi simultaneously expresses gratitude and disappointment in the world and, perhaps, the poet’s role in it. Here, grief becomes both moral luxury and a personal necessity. But these poems double back on themselves, making way for the possibility of a happy ending as in “The Boy Inside the Pumpkin,” where the title character is discovered inside the smashed remains of a blue ribbon pumpkin. Scafidi wants us to know that we live in a wild world where “these things never happen. They happen everyday.”