Review of Jason Stumpf's A Cloud of Witnesses
A Cloud of Witnesses by Jason Stumpf
Quale Press, 2010 (63 pages)
Quale Press, 2010 (63 pages)
Hebrews 12: 3 reads: "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us." Jason Stumpf's first book A Cloud of Witnesses is a set of intense, sculpted prose poems that "run the race" of confessional poetry in a world of persona -- asking whether we can, after all, express selves even though it is clear that we are constantly inventing and reinventing ourselves for the consumption of others. I came to feel that this collection of intense, lyric prose poems is a kind of experiment in finding out what of a self is sayable, and that it operates under a series of postulates:
I. We are not the result of narratives. Stumpf's "Preface" travels all the way through a story to the afterlife and its end; the final poem, "A Summary of the Missing Chapter," hints at a gap in the book, rather than finishing it; even the "Epilogue," harsh and final in its way, assumes that we will return to the book, that we are not finished quite yet. Narrative in A Cloud of Witnesses is seen as the oppression of historical record, and has little to do with character, identity, or self: in "Skeletons at Feasts," we read that "Whole volumes of weather lined the shelves such that there was little else to mention aside the random scandal."
II. The self is never present. "A Paradise of Old Hats" describes a character who is, as are all characters in the book, unnamed: "Often he would turn around to discover he was missing. Like transmissions over patchwork fields, unstitched and scattering before the gathering flock." Those unstitched transmissions are a cloud of witnesses: rather than one heroic actor around whom a world is hand-crafted, what appears in this book is instead a swarm of echolocating bats, each speaking its word towards an indeterminate center and listening for what comes back. What comes back is not a self or person, but language: "a mother," Stumpf writes, "is a catalogue." And it is this practice of witnessing, speaking and naming that replaces narrative. In "An Egg Mistaken for a Pearl," we learn that "...it is a gathering of crows, omens, that animates the artifice." Further, that gathering takes place in language: "it is the slow accrual of names that keeps the story moving, that comes through pain."
III. The world is a reliquary. This phrase repeats again and again in A Cloud of Witnesses, and it shows us the book's method. A reliquary is a container for sacred reminders, and they can contain anything, a fingernail, a piece of cloth, or a crumbling book. If the world itself is a reliquary, then all things in it are sacred reminders. Accordingly, the book sanctifies all things it touches through the song of words: the poem "Miss Nancy. An Epistle" falls, as many poems do, into a skein of iambs: "The sky's a hectic red. The Woodsman's mules have dragged me far afield..." As far afield as the poem goes, it never forgets its precise, gentle caretaking of the names of the relics that make up its world. "Snows come alabaster as before, cut by boughs' black veins."
The answer, though — the determination as to whether or not we are reading about a self, whether or not something has passed from the poet to us — is no. "Epilogue" calls on the reader to burn or bury the book, says that the book is idle, and it is true that in the course of the collection's wanderings, no individual man or woman appears, nothing stays fixed long enough for us to be confident in saying that we have made contact. In this sense, the book bravely tells us what negative results in science do, as in this line from "The Painter's Song": "What happens next does not finish, what happens does not finish, not with you or me."
The answer, however — and this is a book that insists on multiple answers to single questions — is also yes. What happens "does not finish": it starts, however, with a "me". As the poem "A New-Year's Party" opens, "Where there is a was, there is a will." The postulates of A Cloud of Witnesses are not philosophical truths or strategies straightforwardly plucked from the models available in contemporary poetry: they come from somewhere and someone. While we may not be hearing the voice of an individual, and we may not be learning about the "random scandal" of a poet's life, in reading this book we enter into a method of witness so idiosyncratic as to be individual. The traits of the book are themselves a personality: the monkish, loving way that the book arranges its words, its insistence that something fundamental and central is missing, the obvious boredom it feels at the prospect of moving from one event to another in causally determined lockstep. At turns playful, lonely, dreamy, and dead sincere, the book's manner of speaking is as complex as thought itself.
The answer, though — I hope — is not yet. By this I mean to say that I hope that the encounter begun, or hinted at, in A Cloud of Witnesses is played out through the many books of a long and steady career. This is a first book of poetry from a very small press: my copy is misprinted at a two degree angle from the horizon of the page, which makes the text look as if it is exiting the page at high speed towards stage right. Reticence, and an unflinching meditation as to whether this poetry is worthwhile, marks every page. But the poetry is worthwhile; it is beautiful, invaluable. It moves, and moves us, towards a place we have not yet been. Thankfully, in the same breath as the poem "Epilogue" asks the "Dear Reader" to burn the book, it pleads for more time, more attention: "Don't give him up. Things happen slow, you know, in plots so plan to stay a time..." The challenge that faces a voice brave enough to say no and not yet and there is nothing here, is whether it will maintain the endurance to push back and again towards the unknown and the unknowable. I hypothesize, or maybe I simply hope, that this voice has enough of what "Epilogue" calls sed, or thirst, to keep arranging the names such that the story — our story, our language — continues its winding trail forward.
Nick Admussen's work has appeared in Boston Review, Western Humanities Review, Epiphany, DIAGRAM, and The Comstock Review. He holds an MFA from Washington University and is a PhD candidate in East Asian Studies at Princeton University. Admussen currently lives in Los Angeles, where he studies and translates contemporary Chinese prose poetry