Leigh Stein's new collection is captivating even for the most ardent of poetry-haters.
Image from Flickr via MomLes
By Genevieve Walker
It’s a choose your own adventure of genre—poetry, humor, and narrative—that makes Dispatch from the Future (July 2012), by Leigh Stein, a book of poems for haters of poetry.
Mythology, religion, love, time, aging, and the end of the world are strung through Stein’s 131 pages, broken into four sections and caveated by an introduction (“Warning”) that reads:
“There are better ways to break a heart than Facebook, such as abandoning your pregnant girlfriend at Walmart like that guy did to Natalie Portman. If you read this book sequentially, bad things may happen to you.” Take heed: if you read the book sequentially, like any other book, you might also think that you are reading poetry, like any other book of poetry. Bad things will happen to you.
Stein’s style (stark, sometimes epically vivid, mostly self-deprecating and tirelessly colloquial) gives voice to an American post-collegiate, prolonged adolescent preoccupation with the defunct social structure that worships credentialed youths while condemning them to debt and precluding them from the workforce. It is reminiscent of Tao Lin’s staccato storytelling, and its quick dry humor plunks itself in the Kristen Wiig or Demetri Martin schools of polished, self-aware uncertainty.
I’m like, I wish, right? / I wish there was a spokeswoman for aphasia who / was also internationally recognized for her / beauty, intellect, and equestrian panache.
Stein’s smarts are on display. Each sentence might be imbued with meaning we can’t understand but really—her style implies—it doesn’t matter.
Stein is a former New Yorker staff member and “Book Bench” blog contributor. She is the author of a novel, The Fallback Plan (2012), hailed as “beautiful, funny, thrilling and true” by Gary Shteyngart; the story follows her protagonist’s decision to stay home after graduating from college and babysit instead of getting a real job. The poems collected in her recent book are imbued with this same life stage:
I am only 22 years old. / I want to fake my death on Facebook. I want a pony.
Harnessing pop/high/low art/media references and dialect, Stein’s lines read one moment like status updates and the next like narrative prose or a screenplay. The pleasure of rhythm in a phrase is constantly challenged by Stein’s switchbacks, kind of like avant-garde jazz or art rock where consonance and melody are traded for precise dissonance.
Every single man I’ve ever loved is walking down the aisle / On Sunday. Which aisle is mine? And where is my husband? / Maybe a dingo ate my husband.
Momentarily sucked into a story, then, characters, setting, and theme are replaced—new beat, baseline and notes. The emotional resonance falters (she was in love, evocative questions about choice and life and marriage…oh wait. She’s talking about Seinfeld. Never mind). Stein’s poetry requires a nimble mind.
I wanted the themes to transcend the narrative, or the narrative to drift away, leaving only imagery. But instead I read mind-chatter, and my mind chatted right back—chatting to itself about lines that read like snippets of conversations I would never get to know from beginning to end.
You should know I’ve outlived / everyone in my family, and now / I’m your guide to the haunted / universe. Watch out for pianos. / Take my picture if you want / to see what color my energy is.
Sprinkled between these shoulder-shrug stanzas are nods to Steins’ capacious knowledge of classic literature, mythology, and words. Stein’s smarts are on display. Each sentence might be imbued with meaning we can’t understand but really—her style implies—it doesn’t matter. A review by Rob MacDonald, editor of Sixth Finch says it: “Leigh Stein’s poems know how to laugh it off after a stunning tumble down a flight of stairs.”
Stein’s poems are the very perfect product of a frenetic in-between culture where knowledge is currency but also poverty, and its artistic output is underscored by a perennial ennui—like the girl in high school who wears a black beret and talks about death all the time. “What’s the point?” She asks. “Please let there be a point.” We fear the end of the world, but we still want to know everything about it before that zombie apocalypse. Welcome to our now.
Genevieve Walker writes about books, art, photography, media, and bicycles. Her work has appeared in Salon, The New York Times, Newsweek International and NewsCred. Find her @Pickled.