A Refusal of Despair

Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano

Etruscan Press, 2019

Paperback. 122 pages. $16.00


Cover of Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano.


Although published more than a year ago, Ill Angels, with its indomitable refusal of despair, may be one of those books we need to read in the year of escalating climate crises, social, political and cultural warfare, and the resurgence of and the promise of more biological pandemics. Ill Angels does not wince in the face of the terrible cruelties that haunt the world, but it also does not cede ground in its insistence on hope.


On the one hand, Dante Di Stefano’s second book of poetry is a neoromantic paean to possibility, to faith in a future embodied in children and teenagers (especially his students). On the other hand, a countervailing, or perhaps complementary, tendency in Ill Angels finds Di Stefano celebrating the present and presence, represented as much by the distant indifference of inanimate objects (“Jubilate Pluto”) as the proximate insouciance of wild animals (“The Porcupine Climbing the Apple Tree”). Because Di Stefano is all too aware of the cruelty that lies beyond his classrooms—see, for example, “Verruckt,” “45th,” and “O Trampling Empire”—he insists on a love that is the equivalent of ungrounded theological faith.


This means that at times Di Stefano echoes the passionate declamations of a Ross Gay, a Cyrus Cassells or an even earlier John Clare. But unlike Gay, Cassells and Clare, Di Stefano’s aestheticized fervor is more metaphysical than quotidian, his tender poems to his wife and his children notwithstanding. This unadulterated sincerity has its risks: many of these poems approach a too-sweet sentimentality, and a few, unfortunately, broach the border, weaving back and forth between good taste and self-indulgent rapture.


Fortunately, the balance of this book finds Di Stefano celebrating his good-faith fantasies— “I know all prayer is merely the patter / of little feet coming down the stairwell / in a daydream of a future household”—with well-crafted, often playful, metaphors and similes, bolstered by over-the-top alliteration and assonance that wink at pop culture icons like Bob Dylan and Dolly Parton, to say nothing of literary warhorses like Swift, Pope, and Hopkins. Still, Di Stefano’s unrestrained gaiety in the age of what he aptly names “Stump Speech” demands a robust defense, and while a poem like “And Why This Ridiculous Happiness?” takes a giant step in that direction—there’s no gainsaying the stunning transcendence of lines like “If you speak to eighth graders as angels / and to angels as eighth graders, already / you have become fluent in paradise”—I can’t help but wonder at this excessive faith in language, in poetry, that sidesteps—not overrides—doubt. For that faith seems to depend on delayed endorsement, on retroactive belief: one hopes for love and happiness, and when it happens one believes it appears, in hindsight, as predestined.


Di Stefano implicitly acknowledges this slippage between faith and imagination, which is why he also knows that joy can only be truly joy if it is utopian, literally nowhere, unchained from time and space. At the same time other slippages—between past and future, between presence and absence—enable a kind of manic happiness, a man inebriated on both the past and future. Di Stefano and his beloved wander among his “memories of imagined futures,” adrift between innocence and suspended disbelief: “for now we listen / and nothing can curb the sound of this band / as it plays ‘I Ate Up the Apple Tree.’” And if such a postlapsarian moment could last, the two would always be nearing “the Mardi Gras of / an Eden we’ll be forever leaving.” The traditional secular realm of this nowhere is, of course, art. Thus, we are to “imagine the string, / attached to a red balloon painted / in oil on muslin, a gentle tether / that holds us nowhere amidst the cosmos.”


To be fair, Di Stefano is not always this overweening and serious. Several poems find the poet in a comic, jocular mood, however much these light flourishes veil darker political and cultural realities. These modest reprimands are best captured in punchy lines like “I think I dated the national debt / on a dare for a week in middle school; / I didn’t like the way she chewed bubble gum.” Ill Angels is peppered with these kinds of tongue-in-cheek delights, and for this reader, sweet tooth aside, they leaven the saccharine confections. As a whole, Ill Angels suggests that Di Stefano is, in the end, an Omni-American, to use Albert Murray’s phrase, a true believer in the country’s destiny which, for Murray (as well as fellow travelers like Ralph Ellison and the recently deceased Stanley Crouch), redeems its past. One implication of this story of redemption is that racial, class, and gender differences evince democratic diversity more so than they do intractable hierarchies. For example, Di Stefano’s odes to jazz greats like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins focus less on their aesthetic achievements than their populist implications. In practice, then, the Constitution is an open-ended document: “Anyone who opens her mouth to sing / erases and rewrites the preamble.” For Di Stefano, this is hope, and hope is only love in action (to paraphrase everybody from M.L.K to Cornel West). Ill Angels thus unites religious, political, cultural, and domestic faith under one flag—hope—and, like Jesse Jackson, who once proclaimed the same during his 1988 presidential run, Di Stefano wants to keep hope alive.


Her Affective Labor

Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh

Etruscan Press, 2020

Paperback, 116 pp., $17.00


Cover of Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles by Diane Raptosh.


Diane Raptosh is the poet of the unlikely.


Of course, any creative act in itself is rather unlikely, whether it is the cosmic creation ex nihilo in which the universe is manifested out of an accident of strong and weak forces converging and dissipating, leaving some errant subatomic particles behind to crash together for the big bang, or the simple clapping of hands, a rhythm, a disruption, a repetition. A creative act is the convergence of everything, an impossibility, which only has to happen once, and there it is: the dreamy reverb by David Roback, the breath between H. D.’s lines, the abdominal contraction before Bill T. Jones’s turns.


Over her thirty-year career, Raptosh has produced wicked, loopy, political, surrealistic, and unforgettable poetry: experimental and wild, a free-roaming poet of the Idaho sagelands. Her work leaps madly into the mud-pools of language with a child’s abandon, but with an intelligence that is hard, uncompromising, and disturbing in its own playfulness.


Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles completes Raptosh’s verse trilogy, a project nobly supported by Etruscan Press. The first in the series is American Amnesiac (2013), a book-length, ghazal-sequenced monologue spoken by a former Goldman Sachs exec, who seeks to recover his identity, to reconstitute himself as an improbable and decent citizen. In the second book, Human Directional (2016), Raptosh leaves the individual to explore the collective and atomized human consciousness via a slapdash of prose poems, exploded catalogues, and single-line jokes. In her trilogy, we are stuck in the hell-scape of an American post-capitalistic society: racist, punitive, commodified, cruel, and degrading. Yet, multi-vocal and therefore hopeful, precisely because of the fissures and fractures that occur amid all the digital noise.


With Dear Z, Raptosh brilliantly answers this world with a set of letters addressed to our pre-embryotic, single-cell existence: a single fertilized ovum, a “love speck,” which drifts down the fallopian tubes. Perhaps finding purchase on the uterine wall and becoming, and perhaps just being flushed out of the system entirely and not becoming. We will find that in Raptosh’s poems this difference matters perhaps less than we’d think.


The voice is materternal, not that of the mother but of the aunt: intimate, loving, world-weary, and transgressive. It is a voice that is fully queered and unmoored, wholly original:


Dear Zero,


Most humans evolved only once—in what’s likely

East Africa, 200,000 years ago. So don’t freak


when I shout out We share the same mama:

Mitochondrial Eve. Unlike the one in the Garden


of Eden, mtEve was not the sole woman on Earth,

but the one who made her descent into everyone.


So pray tell, teeny homunculus, as the line

from “Time of the Season” by the Zombies,


that British Invasion band, goes: Who’s your daddy?


Please know that should you come be, Big Data

will quickly conceive you as processing stream,


a more or less numeral entity—lacking internal lyric:

that giddiest hymnal. That solemn bee. The think feeling


fist that is inwit. Queerest iota, does this kind of talk

smack of hokum-humanist seething on my part?


Our shared mother mtEve was mostly a kink of statistics,

a ringing quark of a person: a true lovely, who probably


knew to venerate horses.


Here is a whirlwind of what Raptosh does so singularly well: the careening slant rhymes and punning, the clack of assonant syllables against sharp end consonants, and the driving free associations that make perfect sense. But amid all this dazzle, Raptosh is in impressive control of her material.


In this passage, she isolates “inwit,” a word she introduces in Human Directional, and a word she parses out in her essay, “Poetry is Where the Action Is”:


. . . inwit suggests the inner senses and interior sensibility: that collection of inner faculties the poet sets store by. Inwit is, by my reckoning, the very womb in which the poet thrives.


It seems to me that the entirety of Dear Z is an exceptionally crafted articulation and enactment of inwit. Indeed, one suspects it is a quality deep in our mitochondrial DNA, somewhere in our circuitry, we just know we must somehow “venerate horses.” Our capacity to engage in affective labor—to love, to imagine, to be awed, to empathize, to connect—surely comes from that first “mama” that Raptosh names.


Throughout these letters to the zygote, the speaker faithfully accepts the binary of becoming and not becoming, and she celebrates this suspended (and free-falling) state. After all, even the zygote that does “not become” has “been,” a sack of genetic coding as ancient as the first evolution.


Dear Z,


in the presence

of your latency—


that vacant shoe,

those shades


of facelessness—

let’s say


I think I feel

the sound of dots moving.


Our ancestral connections, both to the past and future generations, are but Morse code taps on our own genetic coding. We have the same mother running through us, the sound of dots moving. An un-extraordinary miracle-mirror. A tapping. Let.us.be.k.i.n.d.


Diane Raptosh gives us a speaker who possesses that womb-wisdom, who is generous and critical in her advice, especially when the news is harrowing. We have a great poet among us with commitment and daring and craft, who teases us and indulges us with her unconditioned and unconditional wisdom.