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Kansas City Star’s New “On Poetry” Column Reviews Jordan Stempleman, Kevin Young, and others
KU basketball ain’t the only thing going for Kansas right now. And we must note new poetry sections in newspapers! So good on you, Kansas City Star. Written by former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low, the paper’s new column, aptly called “On Poetry,” currently features reviews of Jordan Stempleman, Kevin Young, Albert Goldbarth, and Heid Erdrich. What do they have in common? Science, says Low.
Poets with new and recent books borrow the mapping technique of “data fusion” from scientists.
The Geographic Information Systems defines “data fusion” as “organizing, merging and linking disparate information elements” to represent reality. Albert Goldbarth, Jordan Stempleman, Heid Erdrich, and Kevin Young create 21st-century literature by using multiple streams of information. In their works, science overlaps imagination, and perhaps this is the newest trend. Regardless, they each write books that enlarge the reach of American poetics.
Still, it’s a diverse group, with Goldbarth on his 26th book, and Stempleman on his third:
Stempleman, a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, embeds scientific knowledge within his short poems in his third book “No, Not Today,” which is scheduled for release in April. Maps, sunspots, fossils and tectonic plates appear in this volume, juxtaposed with ordinary talk. He holds the collection together with the voice of a companionable if nervous narrator. He entertains, but underneath his jokes lie uncertainties. He worries, “I am still thinking too much/ about what the first moonwalk cost us.” The cost is not just economic, but loss of dreams about the unknown.
After fretting about the moonwalk, he continues with a change of direction: “I have a secondhand horn.” He piles together such comments, and just when a story begins to emerge, he shifts again. This poem ends with “lost alone in the weather again.”
The moon and weather are brackets of physical reality. They are the scientific laws that mark boundaries of Stempleman’s reality. Within the poem, however, his narration scatters like subatomic particles. This breaks down René Descartes’ idea that mental processes are separate from other physical laws.
Throughout his book, Stempleman keeps tension between chaos and logical sequence. He arranges individual poems like a diary, with titles of “Monday” through “Sunday,” but with unexplained gaps and repeated days. Disruption of weekdays parallels the non sequiturs of his comments.
One of the poems titled “Wednesday” celebrates maps, “I remember to laugh again when forced/ to look at the unforced motion in maps.” He ends this poem with geologists, “who each morning/ wake up, look out at the world and sing hooray.” The scientists who study solidified pasts, the geologists, cheer, and Stempleman shares this enthusiasm. Stempleman’s writing is a physical phenomenon, drawing from science as much as the literary tradition.
Heid Erdrich also draws from science. But, Low notes, “as a Native American, she finds the scientific method foreign.” More:
…“Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems” is the fourth poetry book by this enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain band of Ojibwa. She reframes science in terms of her culture. She compares robotic surgeons to “The healers anthropologists called sucking doctors” in the poem titled “Own Your Own: Cellular Changes.” Like Goldbarth, she sees a continuous line of healers who occupy the same space on a periodic chart, but distinct in each generation. No individual healer is more or less civilized, and continuity is her point, not progress.
Other poems grapple with the Frankenstein scientists. In “Upon Hearing of the Mormon DNA Collection,” Erdrich writes about the appropriation of Cherokee DNA samples. Another topic is Kennewick Man, a thousand-year-old body excavated in Washington state in 1996 and central to a lawsuit. Erdrich chooses to give him voice as though he were a contemporary character. She imagines him as an online date in “Kennewick Man Attempts Cyber-date” and as a speaker presenting a news release in “Kennewick Man Tells All.” In this last poem, his statement to the press is a brief couplet: “I am 9,200 years old. / I am bone. I am alone.”
Erdrich’s book asserts Ojibwa language and culture alongside the latest technology. She also explains, throughout the book, the Ojibwa experience within the context of the 21st century. The view is often amusing, as she shifts to playful “Indian humor” to describe not only the debacle of Kennewick man, whose DNA is being sampled, to lust of an “Indigenous Elvis” who works with scanning machine security at the airport and “eases in too close.” Erdrich synthesizes high and low culture, as well as new technologies, to create her ambitious compositions in verse and prose. Adapting to new information is her survival strategy.