Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Steve Scafidi's poetry collection, For Love of Common Words

Clarification: I'm posting this as a public record of the very first official poetry review I ever wrote [I was ordered to write it as a piece of my poetry tutorial with friend/professor Eric Trethewey (yes, he's Natasha Trethewey's dad, and his poetry is just as stellar/heartbreaking/smart).

This review was first published in the February 2007 issue of The Hollins Critic.

For Love of Common Words. By Steve Scafidi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006. $16.95 (pa.)

Steve Scafidi’s new collection of poetry, For Love of Common Words, reimagines the mundane and provides a space where one can contemplate the beauty of everyday objects. The edges of the world move past marginalization and move into focus; the objects become a new iconography. The reader may grimace over the “most unspeakable things,” but this is precisely the point: to look at the world as it exists, opening our eyes to what we may neglect.

Discovery of the everyday is an important aspect of Scafidi’s poetry. In his poem, “Implement and Icon,” he talks about an image he’s “...needed to write about for a long time,” that of a pitchfork suspended “in the air among the trees on the hill here.” The title begins the discussion of perception that is a signature of his work. The title includes the possibilities objects; we can see them as implements or as icons. Through the juxtaposition of meaning, the question is posed: can an implement become an icon, something magical, and something one can worship? Description of the pitchfork links the object to religious iconography and to nature. He writes:

It simply floats iconic as a statue of Mary
in a pilgrim’s mind and does no real harm
standing as an image or a symbol in the woods.

Following the transformation of object to icon, Scafidi takes the pitchfork and reimagines it yet again, this time as an implement of metaphor. He moves from the literal pitchfork, to the one in his mind, the “...pitchfork motionless here in the mind – / full of rage these days, full of murderous rage.” The poem turns toward revenge, as the speaker thinks of the teenagers who’ve “crushed” his mailbox, cars “swerving into you on the highway” and to what someone must feel as they stand “at that pit in Manhattan.” The pitchfork’s reimagination exists in a space between the title’s initial juxtaposition, as metaphor is tool of the literature and the objects used for comparison become icons in their immortality.

Scafidi’s poems are spaces of worship; the everyday is transformed through reverential description. He writes how “ corrupts your sense / of the world to know how often the impossible happens upon us.” This “corruption” is Scafidi’s greatest achievement; the everyday becomes something mystical, something capable of metaphor. The poems demonstrate his “love of common words,” and their ability to focus on everyday images. This reframing of perspective results in work that broadens metaphor and consequently expands poetry’s iconography.