04 September 2009

Sotto Voce

Sotto Voce by D. Antwan Stewart Main Street Rag Publishing Company; $10 Editor’s Choice Chapbook Series 2007 Reviewed by Susan Jo Russell Sotto voce means to speak under one's breath or, in music, a dramatic lowering of tone—not a simple decrease in volume, but a hushed quality. D. Antwan Stewart’s poems are, indeed, hushed, yet full of emotion. They are about the whispering life, the internal patter that accompanies the daily wanderings of the soul—invisible to others but perhaps the strongest reality for the self. The first poem opens with the hush of dusk that “begins with simple house cats/crouched/behind the queen palms.” It is perhaps the quietest poem in this book but, as its concluding lines suggest, a disquieting quietude pervades throughout: “the grass like clouds/before the gathering/of storms.” Boundaries are everywhere in Stewart’s work—between love and hate (or, as one poem suggests, between love and apathy), between sleep and waking, evening and morning, reality and something that may not be reality. Often the speaker is moving between boundaries, trapped on one side, trying to reach for or understand the other. In the title poem, one lover listens to a violin played “horribly” in a neighboring apartment as the other sleeps, able to ignore, or pretend to ignore, what is amiss in the music and in the relationship. The sound of the violin is a hushed sound—it “whispers” into the room—but the emotion it incites is both strong and understated: . . . I have to contend with the snore caught in your throat, which I suppose is your subtle way of saying a duet with this indelicate violinist is better than a conversation with me. . . . Stewart’s poems also deal with the hushed identity of a gay man—the young boy’s pretense to his buddies that he likes girls, his relationship to his family (“how I was caught once/prancing around in fluffy pink slippers”), the first adventurous, risky searches for sexual partners, the impact of HIV/AIDS. These poems are competently written, but I feel that I’ve read some of these stories before. It is when he pushes past the expected stories of young gay male experience to a more profound investigation of mind and body that Stewart’s strong, inventive language grabs the reader, as in his praise of the tongue in “Even Bones,” which ends with a passage describing how the tongue might reach . . . those unknown places where even bones quiver the way a river slicks then swallows whole all the various stones. Stewart has an ear for the rhythms of the language; his lines roll softly, but insistently, over the reader, carrying us along on a rush of words without overwhelming or drowning us. We are lifted just above the surface, just far enough to draw breath, as in his beautiful “Elegy” which captures the dailiness of survival and remembrance: This is how I like to remember you— not the mattress worn smooth, nor the dishes filling the cabinet with dust. But the sun ravaging you with light, those birds lost somewhere in your body’s cast shadow. The poems hover, always, on the edge of sadness, or on the boundary between sadness and something that is not happiness but, at least, not quite as sad. In the final poem, “Coming to the End of My Sadness,”—another poem in which the edges of reality blur—the narrator has sunk so far into himself that even the dog refuses to acknowledge him (“She’ll bare/ her fangs if I dare touch/her, resist me holding/her warmth against/my belly”). Yet a frail hope surfaces on the border of despair—a self-mocking hope, it is true, but nonetheless a turning toward life. This book is full of birds and music, of reaching out and turning in, of sadness—even bitterness—but a determination to persist. Stewart’s sotto voce words are worth listening for through the surrounding din.