Reviews

  1. Kimberly Allen, Review of Looking East, William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Asia: The Photographs of Harry Fowler Woods, by Margo Taft Stever and James Taft Stever, Valley Voices, Volume 16, No. 2, Fall 2016.
  2. Bill Yarrow, Editor, Review of The Lunatic Ball, one of five reviews in Blue Fifths Review, #8, October, 2016.
  3. Laura Madeline Wiseman, Review of The Lunatic Ball, by Margo Taft Stever, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Issue 29, Spring, 2015.
  4. Elizabeth Burk, Review of The Lunatic Ball, Valley Voices, V. 15, N. 1, Spring 2015.
  5. Mindy Kroneberg, Review of The Hudson Line, by Margo Taft Stever, Weave Magazine, Issue 11, 2013
  6. Victoria Sullivan, Review of The Hudson Line, Home Planet News, No. 66, 2013.
  7. Ronnie Levine, “The Many Talents of Margo Stever,” Westchester Magazine, October 2012.
  8. Poetry Shelf, “Review of The Hudson LineThe Midwest Book Review, April, 2012.
  9. Susana Case, Review of The Hudson Line, Valley Voices, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 2011.
  10. Philip Miller, “Review of Frozen Spring,” Home Planet News, No. 55, 2006.
  11. Denise Duhamel, from “Poet as Her Own Muse: A Review of Eight First Books,” Painted Bride Quarterly, 2004.
  12. Evelyn Corry Appelbee, “Review of Frozen Spring,” Gin Bender Poetry Review, July 2004.
  13. David Lenson, “Review of Frozen Spring,” Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2002/2003.
  14. Janet Overmyer, “Frozen Spring: Poems by Margo Stever,” Ohioana Quarterly, Summer 2003.
  15. Denise Levertov, “Introduction to Reading the Night Sky,” Riverstone Press, 1996.

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Up the Staircase Quarterly, Issue 29, Spring, 2015, Review of The Lunatic Ball, by Laura Madeline Wiseman

In Margo Taft Stever’s newest collection The Lunatic Ball, she explores madness in the 1900s and the ways in which we cared for mentally ill, by doctors, by asylums, and by throwing them lunatic balls. Part meditation of possible medically-induced madness and part exploration of misplaced family history, Stever’s collection turns on four found poems from letters sent by her great-grandfather to his father and letters sent from the superintendent home on the care received in the Cincinnati Sanitarium, a private hospital for the insane. In the found poem “Cracked Piano,” Peter Rawson Taft, who was William Howard Taft’s half-brother, writes home to his father, Alphonso Taft, who was attorney general in the Grant administration and secretary of war. Peter describes the other patients who laugh, remain silent, or grunt, and who all sit at a table where “The conversation is neither amusing/ nor instructive” (4). He also describes the conditions of the Cincinnati hospital, a place where,

Each patient has a separate        
room with a carpet,        
a bed, a table, a wash-stand,
a box, and one chair,
but no gas and no candles. (3)

Peter’s letter is preoccupied with the place in which he resides that he calls plain and hard, how lonely he is, and how he longs for visitors. In the other found poem, “No Occurrence of an Exciting Nature” from Peter’s letter, he writes of card games with other patients and of the lack of letters he’s received from friends or family, suggesting that he’s been forgotten during the time he’s been stowed away. What makes his letters provocative is the way Stever attends to the missed opportunity and wasted life of her ancestor, mostly forgotten by the historical record, but one The Lunatic Ball stands to correct. Her great-grandfather’s insanity may have been instigated by taking the prescribed medicine of the day. Peter studied classics at Yale, but a few months before graduation, he came down with Typhoid fever. He was given Calomel, a mercury containing drug. He survived the fever, but suffered from reoccurring headaches thereafter and was hospitalized, a placement that silenced family discourse about the unfortunate relative’s condition and eclipsed from the William Howard Taft Papers. It was only during Stever’s research for the book William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Asia (Zhejiang University Press, 2012; English-language edition, 2015) that she uncovered the letters and her curiosity to explore such treatment of mental illness became the subject of her chapbook The Lunatic Ball.

The chapbook also contains poems that ruminate on representative treatment of the insane. The title poem explores the phenomena of lunatic balls, which were balls for those in such hospitals that allowed for “non-insane” people to watch, much like one might watch the proceedings of a trial or a congressional debate, but with music, food, dancing, and beverages being consumed. The poem opens with the evocative image of madmen cavorting,

Furious dancing gives way to screams;
five men stare, ghoulish, at the wall.
This is the lunatic ball. (6)

This exphrasis poem that responds to George Bellows’ painting “Dance in a Madhouse” presents both maddening displays of behavior while it simultaneously humanizes the individuals, pointing to the likely causes of mental illness like Calomel, women who were locked up when they sought separation from their husbands before divorce was a woman’s right, and fevers that brought on brain trauma. Stever also does something more. She gives us not just causation, but also intellectualizes the mad. She gives them smarts, self-awareness, and acuity about their situation, suggesting that such balls and hospitalizations did more to make women and men mad than any other explanatory experiences. She writes,

Behind a glass wall, well-dressed spectators, riveted,
sit amused. Looking at them looking, the patients
know they are through. (6)

Lunatic balls were considered humanitarian treatment even as they worked to reinscribe the separation between the mad and non-mad—the actors and voyeurs, dancers and watchers, sane and insane. Rather than viewing madness as a state of degradations along a vast line, the act of inviting some members of the society to see others as insane likely did more to make madness real than any dose of mercury.

Other poems in The Lunatic Ball meditate on variations of madness—the desire to be thin contrasted with the desire to eat comfort foods (“Animal Crackers”), women who dress as men to enable them to make art (“Horse Fair”), artists like Van Gogh who felt his phantom ear after it had been sliced off (“Van Gogh to His Mistress”), pickpockets, passerby of nunneries, animals who murder, the weirdness of the body. These are rich, evocative poems, poems that reflect on what madness meant in the late 1800s and what madness means today, nearly one hundred and fifty years later. In finely crafted poems, musical, lyric, and precise, Stever suggests in The Lunatic Ball that we’re all spectators and dancers and the difficulty is knowing which side of viewing wall we’re on.

About the Reviewer: Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of twenty books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press). Her recent books are Drink (BlazeVOX Books), Wake (Aldrich Press), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink), The Bottle Opener (Red Dashboard), and the collaborative book The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters (Les Femmes Folles) with artist Lauren Rinaldi. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, Ploughshares, and Calyx.

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Poetry Shelf, Review of The Hudson Line in The Midwest Book Review, April, 2012

Prolific and award winning poet Margo Taft Stever presents “The Hudson Line,” continues her original brand of poetry, speaking on the many topics of life and our way through, speaking from her heart and Hudson Valley. “The Hudson Line” is a strong pick for any general poetry collection. “Ocean Birds”:  Jealous is the night,/the feckless night,/coming over us/as water into sea,/the forceful day's/geography turned black.//Your body is the sea/I float upon, your skin/becomes the waves./Nothing will ever bring/you here to me, nothing/will ever call you back.

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Susana Case, Review of The Hudson Line, Valley Voices, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 2011.

There is a thematic darkness underlying daily life in many of Stever’s 22 poems, which she examines without averting her eyes, though most would have been tempted to, so painful is the subject matter. The title of Margo Taft Stever’s collection refers to a line of Metro-North trains that travel up the east side of the Hudson to New York City’s Westchester commuter towns, in particular, Sleepy Hollow, in which her poem, “Raven’s Rock,” about a legend of three dead women, is set:

for the unrequited, the undone love,
love forced upon them, jealous love
hardening them, these women
by the Hudson now still,

The Hudson Line is not only a subject for poetry, it is a series of trains in which she can write though others may stare as she writes, attempting to read. “This is a little train of reason.” She states in the title poem, and later,

This is a train of thieves, all of us
who never cared for our jobs or our mothers,

Stever’s poems frequently reference inhumanity and loss in this collection, vivid in its details: a yellow raincoat, in which someone swims out of sight; the slime that slugs leave in their tracks; a wasp nest on the sidewalk; a mound of bones. It is a study, in particular, of families. In “Splitting Wood,” for example, a clear-eyed view of an abusive marriage, the poem that would be my favorite if I were forced to make a choice, a wife finally takes revenge because, “It was the thought of his entering / their infant’s room that drove her.” There is nothing overly sentimental or overwrought in these poems. The ending of “Splitting Wood” is the perfect:

She grew up in the country splitting wood.
She knew just how much it took
to bring a limb down.

The author of Frozen Spring, which won the Mid-List Press First Series Award for Poetry in 2002 and Reading the Night Sky (Riverstone, 1996), Stever has addressed family and social dysfunction before. She is able to pull material from a general history, her own family history, news accounts, and myths. In “Nothing’s Holding Up Nothing,” for example, a poem based upon the death of a mother and child in El Salvador in 1982, during the civil war, by describing their particulars, the poet personalizes the 75,000 killed in a highly observed, yet unembellished manner:

Under the floorboards with the wood
rot, the insects, termites skittering to
and fro, the mother hides with her child.

It is as the poem progresses that the reader realizes they are both dead:

It is hard to believe anything
was ever alive under here, under
these boards, anything alive
for long under these boards.

Stever’s repetitions can be wonderfully musical, as in the above and also, for example, in “Step-Mother,” which appeared in an earlier volume of Poetry South:

A step-mother is always bitter,
rash, always seizing the rice,
the corn, the family fodder.
Don’t step on a crack—step on
a step-mother, break her back.

There are recurring images of alienation and missed opportunity in this collection, even when Stever veers away from poems of family. In “Why So Many Poets Come from Ohio,” where her roots are to be found as well, she writes:

Why poets come from Ohio explains
why shopping malls are built to last


only decades, why deer end up dead on I-80.

Cincinnati, the poet’s hometown appears in another poem, “Queen City,”in which she asks, “...why am I coming back to you, land / restlessly stolen, abandoned in adolescent / despair...”

Besides the intensely alive poems about abused wives, the cruel nanny, the dead black man, the dead children, the dead women, there are graceful poems of motherhood, “The Quickening,” addressed to the child within, her “underwater Buddha.” And in “The Worst Mother,” in which Stever addresses a now-adult child, “as you remember / the deprivations—”:

See, instead, this picture
of you as a child with bare feet—
the one in which you wore
angel’s wings,
gossamer everywhere.

Her collection also has two poems about a grandmother that are tender in their evocation of bereavement: “Subliminal wind, shifting body, / he sees you letting go again.” In the penultimate poem, “Invisible Fences,” about a suburbia on the route the collection is named for, Stever writes:

Sometimes I think about nothing except

a few birds and the rain—how they
continue to sing even when it’s raining
even when the cold raining rain
refuses to stop.

Stever is like one of those birds, whose lyric voice soars past the sadness and/or disturbance in the world about which she so evocatively writes.

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Philip Miller, from Home Planet News, #55

FROZEN SPRING
By Margo Stever
Mid-List Press, 4324 12th Avenue, South Minneapolis,
MN 55407-3218, 69 pp., $12.

The first startling lines of the title poem from Margo Stever’s Frozen Spring take the reader to the heart of the poem’s conflict while establishing the book’s major subjects of impermanence, loss, and search for restoration.

Once, long before swallows
ever thought to live in barns,
before crickets chirped on hearths,
was a field of glacial flowers, their bright faces
caught forever like little bog men

This opening (a little like a closing) is typical of most of Stever’s poems, developing, as they do, their small dramas with surprising but inevitable details, which freeze essential, initiatory “still moments” (to use Eliot’s term) as in the dreamy “Weaning,” the book’s opening poem: “Children rustle in their beds,/ dried leaves, their bodies/ crumble against covers./ The rocking horses are wooden/ with sleep, soot/ where their dusty eyes should be.” This poem is typical, too, of Stever’s control of language and the nice connections she makes with the sounds and suggestiveness of simple but carefully chosen words. Letting “Weaning” begin the book is a good choice, as it anticipates many poems to come about other separations, especially death, the ultimate “weaning”!

Stever’s devotion to the ordinary business of living and her transformation of the familiar and everyday to larger truths derive partly from her instinct for the whimsical and the absurd (placing her in the tradition of Dickinson, Moore, and Stevens): “The mind can fill a dank/ four-sided darkness/ with ticks and sighs./ Nothing turns to something./ Breath knocks against hollow walls/ like the hunched unveiled women/ who gossip at the open market/ and bat their canes at flies” [“Entering the Box”]. Over and over, her close observations provide us unexpected glimpses:

. . . the house is sleeping.
Bodies tick like clocks.
Someone is knocking, something’s
about to crack, a trick
of windows, faded voices,
children out on paths
winding down to the bay.
[“Surfaces”]

Often these glimpses are of children or through children’s eyes, as in “Childhood Bestiary”: “Wasps on the shades at nap time/ sting your dreams./ Your feet so far away/ could belong to someone else. / The step stool to the sink/ grows taller in daylight.” The child in “A Little Bit Morning” wants to tell his parents it is morning so he will “forget/ about drowning, about losing himself.” Her four-page “Seeing Nearly Everything: The Grandmother’s Notebook, 1904” uses seemingly random details from a child’s observations to construct the entire poem.

Many poems in Frozen Spring perform a kind of rite, which begins in loss, provides a detailed recollection — a frozen moment — and then a sense of restoration as in “The Nightly Weeping Rock,” based on a wood block by Utagawa Kuniyokshi of a pregnant woman, murdered by a stranger, and then returning:

How her spirit rises up.
How she looms before her husband.
How she hands him the child,
so helpless, so perfectly
dressed in the kimono.

In “Winter Sleepers,” loss becomes myth: “An ark buried with pharaohs brings/ new order across drift/ and frozen dream, the scrape of sand/ against the bow. No one ever knows/ how much is lost. Birds, cats, fish,/ wrapped up — all sacrifice. The cobra/ coils in the tomb for soundless sleep.” In “Bringing Back the Dead,” ghosts haunt the thoughts of the wife–narrator. When she talks to her husband (“gone these twenty years”) he is “ … animated, a night dragon./ His ghost swings in the moonlight/ his blackhair shining.” And although this “bringing back the dead” cannot replace the wife’s loss, it restores her spirit as she asks questions central to most of Stever’s poems:

What is there after life, after song,
after thought? What luff
the wind, the light? What life
is there — the grist, the glow, the grind?
What is there after life, low
life, the hinged peak,
breath, the giving breath?

Poets cannot ask such risky questions (let alone answer them) except with the right language, which Stever provides: slant, gritty, tied to the earth. And she asks these questions again and again, always with understatement, letting sound and image do the hard work. In the poem “Losing Sight,” a sister “beckons” her younger brother to follow her “on a rock ledge” and watches as he “loses the footing/ of the dryground and begins to fall” and eventually “joins the creatures/ who have gone before him,/ one with the rocks and the sheltered earth.” In the painful “Gradual Requiem,” the narrator wonders how different weathers might have affected the sufferings of passengers on the sinking Titanic. Poems with titles like “No Longer Mourn for Me,” “Bringing a Father Back,” and “The Deathbed” visit — “haunt” — moments just before or after death. The “close to comatose” man in “Reading the Night Sky” is “ … suffused, transfixed, all the time/ repeating ‘I see the moon, I see the moon. ”

Many lines and images from Margo Stever’s Frozen Spring will stay in my mind, and I heartily recommend the book. Each poem contains its own “frozen spring,” moments of loss that lead, by way of suffering, to informed experience (better known as wisdom) as in the ending of the title poem:

How determined flowers can be,
their faces fixed like porcelain,
like little mourning things, encapsulated
forever in the frozen spring.

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Denise Duhamel, from “Poet as Her Own Muse: A Review of Eight First Books,“ Painted Bride Quarterly

Margo Stever also has a gift for penetrating violent and difficult subjects. In Frozen Spring (winner of the Mid-List First Book Poetry Prize), Stever’s poem “The True Story of Eugene” echoes [Deidre] O’Connor’s “Meditation.” In this poem, the chanced-upon dead is a man, however, rather than a fawn. Stever’s speaker is a child who concentrates on what lies right beside the man, rather than Eugene himself:

Outside a wasp nest fell on the sidewalk,
All the autumn wasps dead.
It looks like something decapitated,
like so many burnt out cigars stuck together.

The terrifying natural world, the world of men (and their cigars) is echoed in “Ascension,” a poem about dismembering a blue whale. Seven men (seven dwarves?) “who bear the still warm heart/of the blue whale to the boiling vats.” The immensity of the whale, the tininess of the men is reminiscent of fairy tales. Elsewhere in the book, the speaker turns to the world of myth. In “The Fox,” Stever conjures up the violence of Hansel and Gretel in an elegy for her brother. In “Splitting Wood,” she describes a mother killing a violent father with his own ax in order to save her child.

The wild moon foamed at the mouth.
The wild moon crept softy at her feet.

She grew up in the country splitting wood.
She knew just how much it took
to bring a limb down.

Many of the poems also penetrate the ordinary with implicit violence. The poems in the first section of the book center on childhood, often from a mother’s perspective. In “Weaning,” a baby’s breast feeding is described as “an elegant sawing.” In “A Little Bit Morning,” a child awakened by nightmares longs to sleep with his parents:

…his bare feet cold on the bare floor.
The door to their room is wide
like the ocean and just as cold…

This chasm, this fissure, this ravine is the magic of Stever’s poetry. She is able to get into the mind of the other, and stays there though it is often difficult emotionally. She doesn’t ease back and forth for her reader’s comfort. In “Impression of a Snapping Turtle,“ a son, this time seventeen, is described as:

Moon man, man child, monster child,
son between one world and another,
eater of the earth, eater of mother,
father, brother eater….

Stever’s genius lies in the rendering of these in-between places, the lingering she does there. In “No Longer Mourn for Me,” she extends the metaphor of the turtles and perhaps the speaker’s anxiety about her son: “Many turtles did not survive/violent tropical storms…”

In “The Swimming Lesson,” the speaker is now the child thrown into the pool by her mother:

Never holding out a hand
as I sank, choking,

your image wavered above,
my distorted mother.
Warped by sunlight, pulled tight
by the bathing cap….

Reading this thirty two line poem, one would expect the speaker to be rescued, the hand to finally come. But the brilliance of this poem (and, by extension, this book) is that the hand never comes, nor is there the easy resolution of the speaker saving herself.

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Evelyn Corry Appelbee, from Gin Bender Poetry Review, Vol. 2, No.3, July 2004

In her acknowledgements, Margo Stever credits, among others, Maxine Kumin for bringing her back to horses. White shadowy horses appear as in a dream on the cover of this intense group of poems; horses are metaphorically used in several poems. In “On the Possession of Horses,” Stever writes, “Nothing about horses/compels me now,/though once I wanted to be one.” And in “Childhood Bestiary,” a poem about her dominant mother, she writes, “Hiding under the porch,/ peering out, the sky and your body/ cloud-ridden, horse-shaped/ float over the family trees.” My only comment is that my wish for an answer to the question of the abandonment of her love for horses is never answered.

One comes away from the reading of this compendium of startling metaphors with all senses on edge. Hearing is provoked with the sound of new discoveries, vision is filled with images of early pain, early loss. The heart is quieted with flashes of the natural world as hope in coping with the impossibles of living. One senses these poems were written in the assertion of Wallace Stevens, that “In an age of disbelief...it is for the poet to supply the satisfaction of belief.”

Margo Stever’s poem “Seeing Nearly Everything: The Grandmother’s Notebook, 1904” is the crowning gift. These poems elicit a rare ability in which the poet presents a delicate balance between the dream and the real, the longed-for and the unattainable. Read them!

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David Lenson, from Rain Taxi Review of Books, Vo. 7, No. 4, Winter 2002/2003

The winner of a poetry contest often seems to come out of nowhere, but the sensation of sudden apparition suits Margo Stever’s poems perfectly. Reading Frozen Spring, you feel like you’re waking in a bed not your own, not sure how you got there. First one then another object appears. And even as the world reasserts itself, a dizzying abyss opens below it. “A Little Bit Morning” begins:

If he could get out of bed again
and enter their room and tell them
that it is morning, he could forget
about drowning, about losing himself.

Here people exist in the same ontology as places. The animals come out. Night falls. Hope is dashed, then resurrected. She’s not a systematic mystic like Charles Wright, or an unsystematic one like C.D. Wright. She’s someone else. Look how the bottom drops out of this stanza:

I surround myself with them—
the Japanese prints of courtesans,
the Samurai, long swords
curved inward from their waists.
I never knew you.

Stever is an elegist, and there aren’t many of them left this late in history. An elegist isn’t just an unpaid mourner, or a deliverer of sermons, but a poet seeking redemption in a wide downdraft of negation. Loss is a dark field where images appear with supernatural naturalness. It’s what Buddhists say of a world limned against the void. Here’s what happens on a rainy day, for example:

Rain in anklets, drops
of it as big as dogs,
big as canaries,
as big as crinolines,
rain colored like candy canes,
rain with icing,
lipstick rain, pink
as a wilted daffodil.

Billy Collin’s blurb says of Stever’s poems: “they pay as much attention to themselves as they do to their subjects.” No. Her method is translucency. She has ghosts, to be sure. But she also has people, who like all of us are on their way to being ghosts. The image of the title poem perfectly expresses the self-sustaining paradox of loss and preservation that makes this book so emotionally overwhelming:

How determined flowers can be,
their faces fixed like porcelain,
like little mourning things, encapsulated
forever in the frozen spring.

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Janet Overmyer, Frozen Spring: Poems by Margo Stever, from Ohioana Quarterly, Summer 2003

Fauna and Flora are, in a sense, all one, says poet and Cincinnatian Margo Stever. She captures the integration between human and the natural world, the immediate and the universal with unusual yet apt relationships. Thus, “A small child sleeps/scraping together what is left/from the sand, the shells/ground up, invisible now/beneath the surface of the sea” (“The Sleeping Child”). In “The Cello,” “The boy becomes the cello, the child/becomes flowers in the filed/the mourning dove, the morning sunlight,/the boat becomes the sea.”

Stever presents chilly truths without being maudlin, yet in the midst of grief, she offers some small hope. “Many turtles did not survive/violent tropical storms/the summer you left New York City/for your aged mother in Maine.” The mother dies and the son is also dying, yet “tropical storms that take the land,/the indentations of the beach,/all to some larger purpose,/reclaimed, reclaimed.” (“No Longer Mourn for Me”).

The poet writes about the deaths of her brother, her cousin, her father, making the difficult choice to express sorrow calmly. For her brother, “the autumn winds grow cold.” (“Brother Song”). For her cousin, “...it is you/the dim masked death has come to scare.” (“The Narrows”). For her father, “I never knew you” (“Talismans”). Yet, even as the reader grieves with the writer, both see a larger pattern to the births, lives and deaths—not an easy thing to bring off, but Stever does it.

She closes with a delightful series of short poems, “Seeing Nearly Everything: The Grandmother’s Notebook, 1904” with such entries as “A sailor on board has been/making himself /a pair of trousers to keep them/from getting dirty/when he does/his dirty work.” Stever shows readers a new way of looking at the world.

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Introduction by Denise Levertov for Reading the Night Sky, by Margo Stever, winner of the 1996 Riverstone Press Poetry Chapbook Award

Probably, at 18 or 19, the youngest member of a small, generally articulate and creative group of students whom I taught in a poetry workshop back in 1969-70, Margo Taft, as she was then, was extremely shy and seldom spoke a word; yet her sensibility was recognized as a mysterious force among us. She did not present many poems, but those few she did produce had a striking intensity, authenticity, and absence of verbiage. From the welter of student poems, good and bad, I have heard over the years, a line of hers stands out in memory:

I have been my arm.

Even without the rest of the short poem, that statement carries the sense of a quality which pervades the poems of Margo Stever, the mature woman, as it did those of that girl over 25 years ago. It’s the quality that Keats named Negative Capability, which is in part a capacity for vivid identification. “If a sparrow come before my window,” he wrote, “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel,” and also, “…the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me [so] that I am in a very little time annihilated—not only among men; I would be the same in a nursery of children.” Keats was able, as his friend Woodhouse wrote, “to turn his own soul into any object he sees or imagines…and express all that the object itself would see, feel, be sensible of…he will speak out of that object…and it is of…this power I suppose Keats to speak when he says he has no identity.”

Poetry demands of its practitioners some measure of this faculty: it’s a sine qua non. Margo Stever has it to a notable degree, a degree of value to a poet but often a hardship, even a danger, to its possessor simply as a person, unless that person has both “backbone” and genuine talent. Imagine someone equally open to, and imaginatively penetrative of, other identities (even inanimate of partial identities—“I have been my arm”) but without a poet’s relationship to language: what a burden of mute defenselessness!—a burden that is no doubt borne, unexplained, by the many who have acute sensitivity but who lack any effective way of creative expression. Margo Stever, fortunately, even in the muteness of adolescence, was a poet. (And turned out to have personal strength and persistence, too.)

Along with the ability to both receive and penetrate, this heightened empathy, she has the gift of articulating her perceptions in turns of language that are uniquely hers, the opposite of clichés. I suggested in an essay some years ago that before one lets a poem go forth into the world, after the last structural revisions have been made and it is as whole as one can make it, there’s still one more thing one can do for it—one can go over it one more time to see if there’s any “tuning up” of diction possible, consonant with its overall needs. Whether Margo Stever engages in that practice or not I don’t know, but certainly her poems presented here are not in need of that kind of tune-up; her verbal imagination is so individual that I suspect she usually gets the diction right the first time. It’s an imagination that registers a breast-feeding baby’s “pull of tongue and mouth” as “an elegant sawing,” as experienced by a mother reluctantly aware that it’s time to wean it; or which perceives the stars, through the eyes of people clinging to lifeboats while their ship sinks, as

hung like dry burning towels in the sky.

But these are not poems from which it’s easy to extract striking fragments, since Stever’s voice maintains its distinctiveness throughout each one.

In Reading the Night Sky her key is typically minor and her themes most often introspective—the fears and lonely visions of childhood, or the sense of actual or impending loss, or the consciousness of being the only one, among sleepers, who hears the loon’s “thin, foundering, faraway cry” (and “foundering” is the unpredictable, perfect word there). But she is not squeamish, and can also take on the violent, blood-saturated scene of men struggling to drag the huge heart of a whale towards the stewing vats, an unforgettable picture. This sampler reveals a hitherto unknown, gifted and serious working poet, and should be welcomed warmly, for itself and as a foretaste of an eventual larger volume. I am happy to be one of the first to give it that welcome.

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