The Success of Failure
Review: Gold Earrings, poem by Sharon Stevenson, Intro. by Robin Endres, Pulp Press, 1986 Homer St. #202, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V68 2W7.
Don’t kill yourself.
That's what they want you to do.
Spring up from every burial.
Only workers have this deep root.
—Meridel Le Sueur
from “Dream Song for Mark Lucy”
The poet-as-suicide evokes cliché images that are not only too numerous to record, such is their truth, but also provokes responses that mix curiosity with anger —such is their pathos. Robin Endres who introduces these poems with a personal and very competent essay should be thanked for not using Sharon Stevenson’s suicide to publicize her poetry. Such tactics are all to common in our time when poetry is so reduced in value that publishers are quick to become literature’s vampires [the Sylvia Plath industry] by draining the poet’s final act of meaning to infuse their books with value —an ultimate transfer of “use” value to exchange value. And I surprise myself for mentioning Stevenson’s suicide to introduce this review; but, it is too significant to ignore, too revealing to us of the condition of our poetry not to treat this poet’s suicide as central to understanding her creative production.
Stevenson’s title poem of her first book, Stone, speaks of the death of Stalin, Osip Mandelstam, bewilderment: “us still here / wondering what to do / 1971 / no models / no truth revealed / & still the system / stares us down.” The crucial point is not that in 1971 the image of Stalin could be viewed with nostalgia but that Stevenson can write convincingly, can portray the emotional correlative to such an event so that it is obvious that it is a determinate aspect of her condition as poet.
That it is easy to mock her stance as being naive only points out the bankruptcy of the ideas that fail to support critical dialogue about art and politics in North America. Stevenson needed a model upon which to pin her hope for a better future. In “End Marriage of Heaven & Hell Make the Rich Pay!”, one of her last poems and I think it is her best, even a great poem, Stevenson uses for the emotive necessity of the poem the three standard Marxist props: “Class war / heavy forge of production, ash flame of science.” Stevenson merges Blake and Marx in a powerful mix of imagery and rhetorical sweep: “as too much milk’s declared & stolen by the rulers, spilling / in the ground. ah, how is product stopped & bottled up. / genie in the glass, plenty crippled down.” She merges Los’s hammer with the proletariat productive power: “those beating hearts pounding the hammer demand justice.” Stevenson points directly to the central evil of capitalism: “private ownership / ...stops full flow of need ... and how is desire restrained!” She records the outward sweep of historical forces then turns the poem in to herself, to her own relation with natural forces, and her own failed human relationships: “what it is to be a woman / my friend mentions / my face steeped / in grief, too little sleep, / too many nights.” I think this is one of the finest failures recorded in our poetry. Unfortunately, like Mayakovsky, Stevenson played out the emotional intensity of that failure to its conclusion, as logical —given the compelling blend of logic and history she accepted—as it was tragic.
Meridel Le Sueur, this year 84 years old, says survival is a form of resistance. I agree. Suicide is “only,” is also, an admittance that the pigs have won again. With the current crisis in our political thinking, with the collapse of state socialism as a model for liberation, with production less and less able to be the vehicle for the kind of disruption necessary to dislodge the hegemony of the post‑industrial capitalism that so oppresses our language —we need poets with the commitment and the compelling belief in language's power to communicate. In spite of the failure to realize a vision that sustained her life and poetry, we need to be aware of, we need to study, to discuss, the ways Stevenson might have succeeded.
I find Sharon Stevenson a hard poet to read —but for the reason that it is difficult to be continually facing the challenge to one’s own presumptions about what good poetry is. Stevenson’s later work is very abstract. She is a Canadian but except for references to birch trees, Bethume, and Riel there is little place in her poetry. The bourgeois critics have convinced us that a poetry of abstract relationships in necessarily inferior, is propaganda. Yet it is obvious that Stevenson’s commitment to her ideas was developed from her action, was as much present to her as the physical presence of the innumerable love relationships that fill so many poetry books. All published poetry, even all poems since the act of composing is an act that could have been directed elsewhere, is a choice —has political dimensions, but Stevenson has done that rare thing, has written real political poetry. In this time of sophisticated cultural de-construction, where the government, the universities, the media all attack the common values and stored-up worth of our language, we need such a politically committed and basically honest poet as Sharon Stevenson even more than we needed her in 1978 when she took her own life. We should at least thank and support Pulp Press for giving this much of her work to us now.