Tottenville Review

A new review of books focused on debuts, translations, and all works that would otherwise go undetected. It is a collaborative of authors, translators, and reviewers bound by one purpose: to contribute to the dialogue of literature.
I Saw the Devil with His Needlework
by Bianca Stone
Argos Books
40 pages
Reviewed by Matthew Daddona

Imagist Aesthete: On Bianca Stone’s New Chapbook

I Saw the Devil with His needlework

Bianca Stone is somewhat an aesthete in the poetry world, particularly the Brooklyn milieu that in recent years has capitalized on an emerging style: toughly sentimental, dashingly ironic, and deceivingly cagey writing.  It’s a world of young MFAs who run their own literary ventures, populate each other’s pages, tirelessly give readings, and are surprisingly not so keen on positing Brooklyn the literary innovator of the Northeast (though they would if called upon).  It’s a concrete world, one that cannot escape poetry’s distant imaginings, which creeps in on itself and then peers outward with willful adoration.

Take Stone’s new chapbook I Saw the Devil with His Needlework, beautifully published by Argos Books (a fantastic, independent Brooklyn press).  In the title poem, the first and most surreal of three in the chapbook, the narrator sees the devil “at the curb/ on old upholstery”, spinning embroidery of clouds with “his counted-thread-point[.]”  Stone’s devil is not a red demon brimmed with fire, but lacking description entirely, still all the more portentous.  The bustling street compliments his stitching exactitude, so that both events are teemed with harried normalcy:

 

 “in a neighborhood full of translucent teens/ sucking on one another’s backpacks/ filling up the trains with their heat/ their intelligence pouring out into the street, sobbing-/ I saw the devil with his sewing threads”

 

Barring punctuation, the poem is efflux, jumping lines and images to arrive at a voodoo and mystic-like response to the perceived trouble at hand.  And why not?  If the devil is a symbol of fate rather than farce, then force fields, fortunetellers, pennies, and curses are warranted reactions.  In fact, we cannot even be sure it is the devil the narrator sees, as no descriptions validate this – is the devil simply a homeless man?  These lines are instances of the mind drifting when permitted, floating down to meet a polluted soul, to finally be absorbed by subconscious reconciliation.  Stone writes, “I left my bones and my scar/ and went out/ like a poltergeist/ totally empty[,]” in a defining act of nullity.

“[The Monsieur Fragments]” is the longest poem here, written in small, unnumbered sections and opening with the woeful question, “Isn’t it hard, monsieur, to speak/ of anything except the moon anymore?”  The poem’s characters are lovers who spend time idling inside their room – he plays video games while she keeps “everything that passes/ between us-/ the light blue/ ticket stub to Springfield/ the argyle tie-[.]”  Its romantic desolation is Imagist inspired, but particularly interesting is the parallel between learning a city and learning each other, all whilst not leaving a space.  Think of a vacation with someone you want to love so badly you can’t get yourself to escape his or her presence; think of the room as a way to make safe this presence, however capricious it may be.  This configuration marks the inward-looking poem that wants to turn outward, if only for self-validation.  In a beautiful end to one of the stanzas, Stone writes tenderly, “If the world is listening-/ if the world is ours/ then we are/ of another world[.]”  It is reminiscent of George Oppen’s epic “Of Being Numerous,” which begins, “There are things/ We live among ‘and to see them/ Is to know ourselves’.”  Validation comes from outside four walls and emphasizes the feigned comfort the lovers have created.  Often, this comfort  becomes vigilant strives for self-assurance :

 

“I watch you sleep/ …when I watch you sleep/ you’re/ static rapture in Caravaggio/ but for now everything/ has gone dark/ a silence sends out its seed/ I’m waiting here/ I wait for everything to come to me[.]”

 

“I wait for everything to come to me” extrapolates from a previous stanza where Stone remarks upon her experiences with the room’s minutiae, finally declaring “we listen briefly to the man shouting/ on the street outside the window/ and think we are safe[.]”  But safety here knows no bounds; it’s a place where physical space is compromised and affection is tested.  And when we come to find out that the addressee, Monsieur, is actually a teacher, the formality of names becomes that much more striking.  She fawns over him, wishes for his approval, wants him to “reiterate for me your syllabus[.]”  Turning again to the fragmentary structure, the narrator has created her own version of a syllabus, and because Stone is not prescriptive (she’s an aesthete, remember), the result is a memorable field guide into the unreasonable acts of love.

“[Practicing Vigilance]”, the chapbook’s final poem, is a gushing portrait of a father and patriarchy, its title an ironic rendering of what it means to be an alert and competent daughter.  It is the collection’s most honest piece, if not for the content then its confessional style.  Stone, who dedicates the chapbook “for the men,” is surely not ready to use confession for the sake of incorruptibility.  Stone’s aesthetic comes in leveling the playing field, deriving these poems from the fickleness of masculine/feminine relations and pleading collusion, only offering a more tender way to understand these coalescent acts.  Stone has written one of the best chapbooks this year and has just contributed illustrations to a poetry comic book written by Anne Carson called Antigonick (New Directions).  Stone’s previous chapbooks were incisive, but I Saw the Devil with His Needlework marks an opening in poetry, a point at which deep reflection and more innocuous imagery is weighed side by side, and has the power to change one another for good.  Men (and women) would be wise to listen.

Matthew Daddona is an editor at Tottenville Review and an editorial assistant at Plume Books. His poetry has been published in various magazines and journals.

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