Subtlety and Light: Review of David Stones’ sfumato

A condensed version of this review will appear in the January 2022 issue of Verse Afire

I first encountered sfumato when poet David Stones asked me to provide a blurb prior to publication. Reading Stones’ work a second time was not only a pleasure, but confirmed the inventiveness, skill and elegance of these poems. Invoking Leonardo da Vinci, whom Stones quotes at the start of the book, sfumato refers to a painting technique “’without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.’” The implication of course is that a painting and its subject can be suggestive, hazy, subtle, and therefore intriguing. Deploying this technique as more than just metaphor, Stones’ poetry dances lightly on that smoke. At times mischievous and meditative, the poems in sfumato swirl around their images, insinuating themselves into the reader’s mind.

One of the techniques I most appreciate in Stones’ work is that his poems often begin in one location, and then, with a stylistic sleight of hand, move the reader into new territory. A good example of this skill is in “Frank”, which begins with “The dead mouse lay in the slipper / with the sudsy peace of a prince / luxuriating in a warm bath”. Stones describes the mouse’s final resting place as “one frail antenna of a leg / flopped over the furry rim”, and imagines what the mouse’s final moments must have been like: “A nibbled bait trap suggested / one last hors d’oeuvres, one last snort / from the cocaine buffet had done its job.” In addition to these striking images, what’s interesting about this poem is that it isn’t about the mouse at all; instead, its subject is the title Frank, who “died lined up in a bank over on Finch, / waiting to pay a hydro bill”. The juxtaposition of human and animal deaths highlights how mundane our lives actually are, with Frank’s “head hitting a table on the way down, / no one to catch him, / free fall into a pool of his own piss.” Stones’ attention to detail is evident here, as is his compassion. The speaker in this poem states: “I would have held him, just like that, / maybe offered him one of my slippers, / saying just climb inside, Frank,”. These poems provide us with a means to consider that which we might otherwise wish to overlook: a dead mouse in a slipper, the precise and heart wrenching details of the moment when a friend died.

Death filters through many of the book’s poems, either through a concern with the difficulty of writing poetry, or more explicitly through an examination of and reflections on the poet’s own life. For instance, “Patterns” explicitly outlines the poet’s own mortality: “As the shadow of my life / diminishes, the patterns / become more visible. / I rise into the morning, / I sit in the garden, / the ferns slouched after rain, / and the patterns sting me.” Similarly, “Passage” details the poet’s journey to Canada:

I carry this presence with me 
and it never leaves: 

the night as a young boy
I stood on the deck 
of a passenger ship
traversing the grave 
of an endless ocean

The poem concentrates a new life in Canada, the death of the old life, as well as the recognition of the ocean as a grave. Similarly, the play on the word, “passage”, as the poem itself, offers an “elusive sequence”.

With regard to writing poetry, “Nine Aspects of Nearly the Same Thing” is one of my favourites. Each aspect attempts to unravel the conundrum of life, death, and writing. For instance, aspect three states “The poem resides somewhere / inside the blue pen / resting on the white paper / with my sleeping cat.” Intriguingly, Stones does not claim ownership of the poem, and points to the tools of writing themselves as responsible for the genius of creation. This sentiment is also apparent in “These Poems of Mine,” where Stones claims that his poems “mostly writhe like / moths too close to flame, / twisting into shapes / I scarcely recognize, the / wretched little monsters of love / they’ve always wanted to be.” The dichotomy of the poems’ wretchedness and their existence as creatures “of love” speaks volumes about the impulse and the act of writing poetry. This theme is further echoed in “empty page”, where Stones comments: “When the page is ready / to choose, it will let me know.” Sitting in wait for the lines of poetry to reveal themselves, Stones acknowledges: “I stare back, prisoner in the box, / anticipating my sentence.”

Stones’ humility in relation to the page is a strength he exploits with playfulness and a willingness to experiment with form. Most notable here is the title poem, “sfumato”, which reminds me of conceptual poetry in its use of spacing and arrangement of words on the page, and which offers a visual rendering of the painting technique:

 we begin         with the tear		upon the cheek.
				   a cathedral.		          of water.
	  		 living church.	              of the chandelier.

Like a da Vinci painting, this poem is suggestive, with enough of an outline to invite us in to the beauty of its observations:

and then		we move		to the cheek
			and understand            perhaps               for the first time
				   how the sun.			      might dissect.
					 the rain.
			how flesh	      lives			in the mouth
			             of smoke

These lines, and the images they create are exquisite, and indicative of a poet concerned with the subtleties and ethereal nature of existence. Although slightly different in tone, “blue heron hunting” deploys the same kind of visual spacing as the title poem, and requires that we consider “the weight /                        of stillness”. By contrast, other poems use the prose-poem form, such as “Alive Woman Walking” and “Pretty Well Invisible”, and these experiments in form indicate the depth of Stones’ poetic toolkit and risk-taking.

            A review of this book would not be complete without highlighting the production quality of the volume itself, which features smoke curls in the corners and da Vinci images that identify each of its sections. The ultimate effect heightens the drama and intensity of the words themselves, leaving the reader with a rich and delectable reading experience.

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