Dear You, a combination of poetry and memoir, by Wade Stevenson is one of the most exposed, unrelenting, and heart-breaking pieces on longing that I’ve read. Like Flutes and Tomatoes (reviewed below), named one of the best Indie books of 2015 by Kirkus Reviews, Dear You is a genre Stevenson seems to have created, and if he didn’t create it, he knows his way around the terrain with the temerity of a conqueror. I love the mix of self-reflective recollection and metaphorical lyricism. It rounds out the narrative and answers the nagging questions that straight poetry leaves to the imagination.
The story starts with a breakup (Stevenson’s marriage); a rat (in the apartment of his soon-to-be beloved, Mlle X.); a rescue (by Stevenson of Mlle X. from the rat); a pregnancy (Mlle X.’s by Stevenson); a marriage (being rescued from a rat does not always end in marriage, but in this instance it did); and a birth. In reading the list above you would not guess that the birth would be the most tragic and life altering of the events that transpired, but it was both stunning and life-derailing for the author. Even more uncanny, Stevenson knew at the exact moment he watched his daughter’s head emerging into the world through his wife’s legs that their affair was over.
I want to know the splitting event
The decisive moment that drove us apart.
Was it in that white hospital room
When her darling head crowned
Between your bloodied groaning thighs?
Standing proudly at your head, I thought:
You will never see her again in this profoundly
Open way. I had such strong sexual energy
Devoted to an act that is God’s
Cosmic joke, and then you laughed,
Asked why I keep returning to you,
I had only one answer, “It’s instant and love.”
I want to write you a poem
So full of magic and power
That you’ll read it and never leave me.
Stevenson had no empirical evidence to support the conclusion that at the precise moment a new life was beginning a prior life would come to an end, but his inner voice advises him as such, and so, there it is. Life in all it’s conundrums.
Dear You is simply, achingly, this: a story of a man who loses his wife. The loss is not in the classic sense through death or divorce although given how abruptly the relationship failed it may as well have been. A traumatic change of heart? Possibly. A near death experience in childbirth? Perhaps. Too much pressure to return to the conjugal bed? Could be. Or was the fruit of the union — the child — more than enough emotion for the mother to hold. After all, the process and pain of childbirth is tumultuous, scary, and maybe closer to God than any of us will ever get while still walking around in our human suits. Before modern medicine, women regularly died in childbirth. Even with modern medicine, some women experience a postpartum depression so severe that it may take months, even years before they return to their own selves while the helpless father sits attentive, ready to assist, but unable to cross the great divide between those two disparate selves that are now joined in the body of that tiny beautiful little baby. How can a father compete against such helplessness? How can he suppress such unbridled longing? The answer is, he can’t.
Stevenson tries valiantly, and sadly, fails, but he leaves behind a collection of poems depicting the war he wages against his new found isolation, punctuated by one of the most despicable, definitive words to pass between lovers: no. For anyone who’s loved and lost, Dear You is your comrade in arms.
Next up: an interview with Wade Stevenson.
Flutes and Tomatoes – A Memoir With Poems
“I became sensitive to every vibration in the air, to every nuance of the changing light. It would be late afternoon. It was then that the snake of emptiness would tighten around my throat. It was hard to breathe. I didn’t know if I could make it to the next day. There was a bottle of red wine on the chair. I grabbed and gulped it and enjoyed the warm swish of the liquid down my throat.” Wade Stevenson, Flutes and Tomatoes, A Memoir With Poems
Flutes and Tomatoes, A Memoir With Poems by Wade Stevenson is not at all what I imagined it would be. Let me start with a confession: poetry confounds me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the cadence, the sentiment, the succinct nature of the writing; it’s just that I don’t always understand it. Without a context, it could be a metaphor for anything which is exactly the commonality of human emotion the poet intentionally taps into, but for a reader like me who wants certainty, assuredness, a good clean ending, the myriad possibilities that poetry presents can be downright frightening. That’s why I love this hybrid memoir/poem combo platter by Wade Stevenson. There was no guessing as to what had happened to make the poet lock himself in a basement studio in Paris with a bunch of tomatoes and a flute because he tells us, straight off, that he’s in mourning, that his lover has quite unexpectedly died, that he’s not coming out of the basement until he discovers the meaning of it all, or alternatively, learns to live with it. Having been apprised of the situation from the offset, I could relax, free to roam the pages of Stevenson’s poems, spending as much or more time on each as I felt necessary to understand because I’d been released from the chore of deciphering the code. I already had the rudimentary understanding; the rest was pure — wait for it — poetry, and it was illuminating and lovely.
I think poets, more than novelists, are the epitome of private people. Full disclosure is near impossible which is why they cloak everything in layers of metaphor. As with all good poetry, Flutes and Tomatoes is no exception. Stevenson keeps the details, crushing as they were, in the safety of his private zone. We have no idea, despite the broad brush of events, as to what actually happened in the atelier in Paris: how the lovers met, whether they were young or old, how long they were together, whether they spoke the same language or were perhaps the same sex, whether the trip to the countryside would have been the first or the last. All we know is that the flute and more than a dozen tomatoes remained, the flute maybe because Stevenson and his lover shared a flat. The tomatoes because, as he discloses, they were gathered/stolen from a farmer’s field on a trip that should have been but was/not.
Judge for yourself what could possibly happen to you that would cause you to spend a day, a week, a month, perhaps an entire summer living a solitary existence, just you and an external object(s) of your choice. How devastating the shock? How debilitating the news? It’s unclear from the text how long Stevenson remained underground. Long enough for the tomatoes to rot, for grief to move in with its own baggage and take up excess floor space in his sparsely furnished apartment, for questions of the existential nature of reality — living as he was, at the time, in Europe, the birthplace of existentialism — to be answered, or go unanswered, for him to turn on a tomato or two, to watch them rot and fester and disintegrate into nothingness, to violently throw one against a wall, to embrace his own darkness and ultimately his own light. It’s not an existence for a cowardly heart, perhaps not even a tomato heart. In the end, only the experience remained, and the words, resonating with an emotion the color of tomato.
If you choose not to eat it
A tomato quickly becomes useless
Unless by chance you learned to love it
Knowing buried deep inside
Are seeds of water and sunlight
To you it is transformed, a crimson flower
You watch its pink petals fall
Think of everything that might have been
Desires, sorrows and regrets
How to reconcile the shadow of your soul
With your real self? Tenderly, with blind
Fingers you touch the precious skin
As it swells and dilates
Like some enormous empty heart