Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"the voice that left a hole in my life," on Steve Shrader

In June 2007, in our "Sister Bay Bowl" issue of the journal, Tinfish published Steve Shrader's poem, "Forensic Theology," which opens "we'll start here at the frayed edge." I'd had a hard time communicating with him during the production stage; I didn't know that he died on February 23 of that year. I google his name now and find that there were two obituaries, back when there were two Honolulu newspapers. On March 6, 2007, the Star-Advertiser reported that "STEVE SHRADER, 62, of Waimanalo . . . A writer, poet and graphic designer" had died, and that he was "born in New York." Two days later, the Star-Bulletin reported that he had "died at home" and that he was born in Cleveland. There is something appropriate about this moving origin, New York or Cleveland, Cleveland or New York. As he puts it in that poem I published, "behind us lay the boundless grid / ahead stretched the land of fractals."

At the frayed edge, indeed. Waimanalo is a community on the east side of O`ahu, known best outside the state for its beautiful long beach, and here as a farming community with a large native Hawaiian community. I vividly recall the day (in late-2006, probably) when I got an envelope of poems from Steve. I'd already been publishing Tinfish's journal for over 11 years, and had never heard of him. The poems were astonishing; they felt like pieces I'd waited all my life in Hawai`i to see. I accepted two of them, only printing one--out of my own sloppiness--and invited him to come to a reading. He came, we met, and then he disappeared. But "Forensic Theology" has stayed in my head. As of a week or two ago, I have his 1970 Ithaca House book, Leaving By The Closet Door, from the internet's magical warehouse of rare and used volumes. It's perfect bound, but stapled inside; the type is from a typewriter. Decidedly small press work from a press that published 100 titles over its 15 year lifespan. (Among the other poets published by Ithaca House were Ron Silliman, Bob Perelman, Maxine Chernoff, Tom Mandel, C.S. Giscombe and others.) Each of them has published many books since. Less magical is the lack of record of Shrader's existence as a poet. All I have found is one review of this first book, by Erik Lichtenberg (who has also disappeared) in Chicago Review: 23/24 (1972), under "Short Notes." When I print this two page review, the last two lines disappear, the ones that read: "fantastic book of poems, full of both promise and fulfillment: Stephen Shrader will, I think, prove to be one of the best poets of our time." This was his only published book. The material in it was written before he moved to Hawai`i.

I had coffee with Shrader's friend, Warren Iwasa, a couple of weeks back. Iwasa edited an alternative Honolulu newspaper, The Hawaii Observer, in the early 1970s; Shrader was the lay-out person, and he was good at it. So they spent many long days and nights together, but Warren tells me that Shrader never told him about that review. I mentioned Albert Saijo, who refused to be published after his Bamboo Ridge volume, OUTSPEAKS, came out in the 1990s. Warren wondered if that's what happens to Hawai`i poets. I don't think so, but the thought teases me a bit. That "frayed edge" that opens Steve's Tinfish poem, "Forensic Theology," leads to this ending: "the water sloping toward a vortex / we harbored doubts about this line of enquiry." Doubts about poetry by poets are not rare, but silence is perhaps less so. By "silence," I do not mean the silence of not-writing, but that of not-publishing. It echoes in my mind that I ordered a set of Emily Dickinson poems in facsimile for Saijo (for which he paid). I had thought their use of the page and handwriting complementary; now I'm finding their joint notion that publishing amounts to an "auction of the soul" more apt.

I don't yet have a handle on Leaving by the Closet Door, which Warren Iwasa suggests may having something to do with Cary Grant, by way of Kurt Vonnegut, albeit proleptically. But the book, which begins during the winter of 1967 in Iowa City, fitfully weaves together poetic narratives of awkward love, Vietnam, echoes of the World War, mythological references, and campaigns that seem wrenched out of particular historical context. There are short poems, after Kenneth Koch. Much of the book strikes me as abstract, if only because I lack whatever historical context there was, myself. But "Retreat" jumps out first--it's on page 9--as a poem about the Vietnam War. I don't think Shrader served in that war, but its images were everywhere; as a child I watched the war on the evening news. The poem is written in the voice of a soldier; the second stanza goes like this:

Word comes down the line: miles ahead
our officers have abandoned their jeeps,
their orderlies, fresh underwear and field
latrines; and splash off across the paddies.

And then, as Shrader is always careful to measure time by its days and hours:

Two days ago, we were still looking
over our shoulders; two hours ago,
we shot birds off the rumps of water buffalo.

Under the blades of the last helicopter,
a crater of flattened grass slides off
toward distant water. A small boy
steps out of the brush, holding up his
mother's thigh. Here is where our maps end.
Here, the dust breaks in waves
through the pilings of our legs.

This is perhaps the least Shrader-like of the poems in Shrader's book, but its concerns (violence, war, family, time) are focused here in ways that open the rest of the book to my attention. The mysterious Erik Lichtenberg pronounced "The Campaign: Letters from the Front" to be "undoubtedly the best poem in the book." The "First Letter" in this sequence begins, "it is a strange land, sister," and includes these lines: "We measure the distance / to the straits by the grain's height and / if we do not sight water by harvest, this campaign / like all others shall end I fear // in white-blindness and brain-frost" (15). The poems lack a particular ground, but the lines are compelling.

What Shrader has done in these last poems is to internalize the action of the poems with more overt subject matter. As he writes in that Tinfish poem from 2007, a poem written in Hawai`i:

we'll start here at the frayed edge
and work our way inward toward the center
pausing whenever something catches our eye

This is a more gentle poetics than that I find in the 1970 book, as "Fragmentation Wound," about a man with "a shard in / his throat." This "shard protrudes / just below the chin" where he sits smoking a cigar and looking at a book of Fra Angelico paintings (of "cherubs / darting like shrapnel"). The man, who is smart, contemplates:

The key to success, he thinks, is
humor. the shard

Ah, but where is the humor in this poem? That the man has a shard protruding from his neck is humorous (perhaps) as surrealism, and that this afflicted man is looking at painted cherubs is--at its extremest sense--a bit funny. But this is not a poem that lives up to its moral. Instead, it testifies more to the artist's pain than to his wit. (Warren talked to me about his sense that Steve was living a dangerous life through his work as a poet; while this sounds a note of dubious Romanticism, it's probably got more than a grain of truth to it. See "silence," above.)

But this last poem I have before me, this "Forensic Theology," is a lighter piece. This is not to say it's not serious, because it is. But the wandering quality of the poet's lines, his thinking, sounds an Ashberyan note of in-gathering and out-taking. The poem occurs over seven stanzas; it's (ambitiously) about the origin of the world and our search for meaning in it. The poem moves from the frayed edge, to a mountain range, to a bridge, to spiritual grief, to the lotus and its Buddha, and ends with exhaustion and doubt. But this is not a doubt that destroys the poem; it merely ends it, without final punctuation, promising more days, more searches. Let me copy out two stanzas of this poem; you can find the whole in Tinfish 17. I have no more copies, but I'll wager that Small Press Distribution does ( OK, so I just looked, and they have six of them left. I will also admit that you can find the issue for free here.

we could tell that space was shaped by the objects
floating in it if those are the words for it
jumping off a bridge would be like riding a rollercoaster
much whooping and screeching until
that last split second when we would enter
an enormous apple or vice
still we were pleased to think of speed
as a potential fountain of youth

day four brought spiritual grief
we found a man nailed to an X
when we saw that he was squared
we realized that he was part of an equation
and looked around for Y whom we found finally
cowering behind a dumpster at the stripmall
Z was of course their stepmother
a quick-witted suburban girl who had married up

and on the poem goes. Truly a beautiful piece of writing.

Warren tells me this about Steve by latest email:

"I believe Steve graduated from Oberlin in 1966. I think he went to iowa right after that. If Iowa is a two-year program, he probably left with an MFA in 1968. He might have come to UH to teach in the fall. The secretary of the English department should be able to find out. He then taught as an instructor for four years. I didn't meet Steve until 1973."

Of the title to the first book, he writes:

"To have somebody walk through what looks like a shallow little puddle, but which is actually six feet deep. I remember a movie where Cary Grant was loping across lawns at night. He came to a low hedge, which he cleared ever so gracefully, only there was a twenty-foot drop on the other side. But the thing my sister and I loved best was when somebody in a movie would tell everybody off, and then make a grand exit into the coat closet. He had to come out again, of course, all tangled in coat hangers and scarves.

Or so I thought, until I saw that the Paris Review interview with Kurt Vonnegut wasn't published until 1977. Did Vonnegut relate the anecdote earlier elsewhere?"

Not surprising that a man born in two places should have heard Vonnegut speak to him from out of the future of 1977, when he wrote his poems in the late 1960s. And so gratifying that he is still speaking to us out of his unknown future, now.

The department secretary is on vacation. If you read this post and knew Steve, please contact me ( The quotation in the title comes from the poem, "The Heart Transplant." "Regards, then, / finally to the voice that left a hole in / my life. Regards" (36).

1 comment:

Janice H Taketa said...

aloha Susan

I was driving in my car today when Warren Iwase's voice came on and talked about a Hawaii poet ,photographer and activist who had died. Steve Shrader.
I lived in " the castle" with Steve as my upstairs neighbor. I had just moved to the islands from Boston.
He introduced me to Hawaiian activism and the underground art world. He was a very serious, sensitive man.