Wednesday Poetry Corner: Light Reading by Stephan Delbos

Emerging from disparate scraps of phrases and images, Light Reading by Stephan Delbos is anything but. Broken into three sections, Light Reading offers wry observations, metafictional sleight of hand, pop cultural references, and Prague-centric psychogeography. Delbos teaches at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague. Along with Louis Armand and David Vichner, he forms a kind of literary expat triumvirate. Producing and translating idiosyncratic works, these three academics have carved out a unique niche in European literature. Along with writing and translation, Delbos has edited a Prague poetry anthology and written a play about Chet Baker. He has also translated The Absolute Gravedigger, by Czech surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval. No easy task. Think François Rabelais by way of Terry Gilliam.

Light Reading begins with the section entitled “Light Reading.” Delbos creates “ghostly narratives [that] emerge from tenuous connections between statements, between words, as well as between words and the page’s negative space.” So says the back page blurb. What does this mean? It’s not too much of a stretch to say that poetry can sometimes go up its own ass. The same for poetry reviews. At their worst, reviewers can have the same breathless rapture one finds in Pitchfork music reviews.

Caveat lector. The line between the pretentious and the profound can become blurry, especially when one adds the complicating factor of time and place. Poetry, like pop music, can have the potential to not age well. And poetry more esoteric and obscurantist can be off-putting. Delbos dodges the scourge of the cruel mistress History by titling his work Light Reading. What can be more trifling, disposable, and slight than “light reading”? Beach novels, James Patterson thrillers, Warhammer 40K tie-in novels, on the prose side of things, along with the Now That’s What I Call Music series, and entire reality TV phenomenon.

But Light Reading is none of these things. It offers a minimalist, self-referential metanarrative, calling attention to the reader, the poet, and the creative process.

keytar & flowbee see

anything can be poetry

He calls this whimsical couplet “‘80s Ars.” On the opposite page a poem about coatracks:

if only

all life

were so

simple

here

hang

your shells shadows

shame

Like a smashcut in a film, Delbos switches from verbal whimsy to a stripped-down meditation on mortality. Keytars to “shells/shadows/shame.” The poem “Broken Wing” is a semicolon set dead center in the page.

In “Daring Adorno” he writes:

ACTUALLY

AUSCHWITZ

AFTER POETRY

IS BARBARIC

Beyond this metacommentary, we get narrative fragments like:

2 Vietnamese

waitresses melt

into silky Smíchov night

Or line fragments capturing a moment: “look out the hollow of the body that holds you” The accumulative effect is a simultaneous commentary, biography, and exploration.

The second section offers us trifles. “Bagatelles for Typewriter” exchange the first section’s minimalist aesthetic for long loping lines. Words and associations slip and slide a la Ashbery. “for fear of revolution like / Darwin said it hurts / //// I am swinging on a velvet swing.” Each bagatelle has a witty title, collisions of high and low culture, profound ruminations on late capitalist Mitteleuropa and belabored puns. One title is “Bagatelle for Tu Fu, Szechuan Tofu, Tsing Tao, Li Po & Plate Spinner.”

Such lunch! Tu Fu’s buddy Li Po

died trying to hug the moon with sodden arms

reflected in a river. In my mind sometimes I am

in China, falling through Chinese air,

pockets filled with teriyaki chicken wings.

In another poem belief is set against “pyres / of doubt / sorrow / deprivation.” How are we to believe when “Ghost notes / […] / phantom limbs / irrefutable evidence / of forces injurious / conspiring / to deprive us of ourselves / and one another.” The lines move forward with an insistence to keep reading, to find the other half of the half-formed phrases, the grammatical fragments tied together into surrealist imagery.

Light Reading culminates in “Arrangements,” ten poems of ten lines each. Although calling these “arrangements” poems may be a stretch. Delbos’s poetic vision ends in a series of lists, fitting in this age of listicles. (These Ten Cat Videos Will Change Your Life! (And You Won’t Believe #6!)) Each of these three sections provided a primer on poetry as a formalist exercise.

<IX>

  1. A poem first word each line rhymed
  2. A poem each line ends with “a”
  3. Poem in memory of Nintendo
  4. A poem with a Power Glove
  5. A poem for Nintendo Power magazine
  6. Master Blaster poem
  7. A poem with infinite lives
  8. Up up down down left right left right B A B A start
  9. A poem contra sunlight
  10. A poem you have to blow on

As Captain America said in The Avengers, “I get that reference.” Not all the “arrangements” are that explicitly pop cultural. The previous poem has “7. Sign here x ___________________” And what are we to make of:

7. A mudskipper

8. The Chicago Black Sox

“Arrangements” reveals the formalist artifice in poetic production. Yet even at its most artificial, it reveals the poet’s life and notable milestones. For adults of a certain, much of their childhood revolved Nintendo. This reviewer had a Nintendo and Contra was a favorite side scroller, along with Ninja Gaiden, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Double Dragon. Blowing on the cartridges to make them work properly was a fact of life in the Eighties. The Eighties were also a time of radical political change, Central American genocide, hairspray, shoulderpads, and the Velvet Revolution. But Light Reading is no more the end of poetry than the Berlin Wall falling was the end of history.

Light Reading stands balanced between authorial biography and poetic formalism. It can reveal insights in the poet’s life, but one has to dig between allusive phrases and ghostly emanations. Light can penetrate into this foggy labyrinth, but it requires both close reading and a light touch. Sophisticated, solipsistic, and just a bit silly, Light Reading offers delight and obfuscation by turns, but also exhibits itself as a fragmentary, pointillist portrait of a Prague poet.

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