Jan Steckel’s The Horizontal Poet is an award-winning collection of poems published by Zeitgeist Press with cover art by Deborah Vinograd. This review appeared at Litseen, (link) a bay area event and lit site organized by Evan Karp, in October, 2012. Elynn Alexander.
The cover of The Horizontal Poet features a supine female form, vulnerable, trusting but not submissive, open but not fully revealed. It is suggestive of a vulnerability shared by choice, not taken. She is at ease with her nakedness, calmly bold. Her hands are at rest, not a figure in waiting but suggesting serenity, contentment.
For these reasons, the cover struck me and became a recurring image throughout the collection, a presence that, like the subjects in the poems—“Wake,” especially—lifts up and transforms the reader. You can’t come away without feeling you’ve experienced something of this woman.
She begins by confronting the human need for intimacy straight on, in the first poem “The History Of Our Love,” and the desire to be “closer to you/than I’ve ever been.” Skeletons grinding one another into dust, pressed to chalk, the chalk a level of transience seen again in “Mermaids.” The ‘history’ of this love is written then as a product of two beings: unified, deconstructed, formless, and then merged. The skeleton is the barest self, at our most basic, and throughout The Horizontal Poet Steckel seeks to return the human form to biology. In the skeleton form, in nakedness, vulnerability and exposure become a theme explored. Here, in the context of love, but repeated again in other poems, the question is raised: Is love apart, maintaining other? Is love unconditional, forgiving? How close can we become; what can intimacy endure?
“The Wind And The Boy”
If your mama pushed you off the bed, he asks
and gave you a scar, would you still love her?
I don’t know, I say
He shakes his scarred head.
The poet establishes an important distinction here about love and boundaries: love with dignity, and vulnerability with trust. She writes of love irrespective of and transcending the corporeal form, bodies rendered as dust in both “The History Of Our Love” and “Twenty Thousand Vaginas Under The Sea.” The body has dignity, but in crisis the magnitude of mortality can be reduced by desensitization to physical stimuli, as in “Cancer And The Man,” “Charity After The Hurricane,” “The Underwater Hospital,” and “Swallowing Flies.”
Steckel often explores the body, corporeal form, with medical enthusiasm. She connects physicality to symbol and then story, parallel: a patient coming by a diagnosis of syphilis; circulatory systems like rivers and estuaries; a heart that beats even after both memory and history have ceased; the living among the dying after a hurricane; water everywhere but everyone thirsty. Steckel reminds us of the body as a configuration of elements.
In “Pretty, Wild” she writes: “I felt my DNA unscrew/when she walked into a room.”
Steckel’s poems are refreshingly unapologetic about sexual response. The uninhibited descriptives (“My First Senryu” and “The Naked And The Dread”) present the reader with an honesty that reminded me of my first impressions of the cover: that ease and confidence.
In “Hard As Nails,” we’re reminded of her activist side, as she presents sexuality with a marked absence of judgment and shame in her own treatment while at times reminding the reader that she is no stranger to bigotry:
When I finally admitted I lived with my girlfriend,
the Russian suddenly had no appointments available.
So I found myself a gay Greek manicurist
who regaled me with tales of his Prince Albert piercing
and didn’t mind touching my woman-touching fingers.
Steckel evokes both modernity and myth, her symbols often biblical, geographical, medical, literary. In each, the reader samples both culture and persistence: the past mingled with the present, the speakers a composite of richness brought to fullness by Steckel’s skillful hand, tapping into a broad education and lush imagination.
The Horizontal Poet is a collection to spend time with: settle into her pages, follow trails to their open endings. She gives you space then to depart on your own, and what you take away from the read becomes a matter of your own choosing.
Reviewed for Litseen by Elynn Alexander, October 1012.
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