Rebel with a Clause

Sufficiency of the Actual (U. of I. Press; $16.95), the fifth book of poems from the Illinois poet laureate, Kevin Stein, hits stands in January. Curious about his references to The Who, crickets, and more, we asked the 54-year-old Bradley University professor to interpret the rebellious piece that gives his collection its title.

Had I freed the one-legged cricket1 twitching in the roses’
            spider-webbed twilight,
I’d become Patron Saint of One-Legged Crickets Twitching
            in Spider-Webbed Twilight.
I’d be Saint of Cracked Song, Patron of the Incomplete
            and Longing.
2
But then, saintly though I might be, the spider goes hungry.

 

Anyway, there’s already a multitude, patrons of broken web,
            unrisen bread,
lost keys—so many, this book says, their duties overlap, say,
            Patron Saint of Fractions.
(See Incomplete and Longing.)3 That’s who The Who4 prayed to,
            trashing instruments
as “Pop Art Auto Destruction,” this, Pete Townsend’s phrase,

 

his name a line and demarcation. The young like to break things,
            even themselves.
The young like a summer drum you put your foot through:
            thump worship.
Jon Entwistle, The Who’s bassist, stored all his parts
            in a wooden
coffin box, until middle-age donned its knee-high socks. 

 

Then he undid the undoing, cobbling five guitars into one
            he dubbed “Frankenstein,”
whose name my friend Frank and I shared with it and, well,
            with Wollstonecraft’s
romantic sci-fi tragic victim hero.
5 Together, we made a creature
            the smarty pants party drunks
called “Frank-and-Stein”6 from the keg-drenched kitchen.

 

Aren’t we all cobbled of pieces, glued and screwed and strung
            together,
ready to snap? Are we instruments some huge hand plucks?
            Are we the roses
or a cricket’s cracked song? And redemption?—in the end
            Entwistle’s estate
auctioned “Frankenstein” for a cool $100,000.

 

Frank did ten years in the county orphanage.7 (See Incomplete
            and Longing.)
His mother remarried a furnace whose pilot wouldn’t stay lit.
            you’ve heard about
the stutterer who falling from a ladder is cured of his affliction
            but made suddenly
blind. What he no longer sees he sings about instead.8

 

THE MEANING

Though he makes no direct claim within the poem, Stein continuously hints at the underlying ”butterfly effect” of life: “What the world takes from us, we think we can’t live without until we learn otherwise.” Each stanza displays how one slight change can alter the course of everything else—even the poem itself.

 

THE ANNOTATIONS

1 Stein wrote this line one fall afternoon when he saw a cricket get caught in a spider web in his rose garden. “I’m known to scribble on anything that strikes me.”

2 Stein calls himself a “technical Catholic” but says his sense of spirituality goes beyond any religion or sect.

3 “It’s funky and rebellious to cite one’s own poem, especially in the midst of that same poem.”

4 Stein loves The Who—he’s read a lot about them, and he’s intrigued by their brand of instrument-smashing musical anarchy. Still, he has never seen the band live.

5 “So many poems involve the intersection of private lives and public history,” says Stein, who has been practicing the method for the past decade.

6 Coined in junior high school, the label was a result of “creatively” combining the names of Stein and his childhood friend Frank, with whom he hasn’t spoken in more than 35 years.

7 Stein said he pondered and pondered the final verse and finally decided to not revisit the cricket: “I felt like there was more to be discovered, so I pushed ahead in an attempt to see what is over the horizon.” 

8 After discussion with several poet friends, Stein changed his original closer, “His mother loved him only a little less than booze,” because he thought it was too negative. “I wanted to acknowledge human limitations, but I didn’t want to break the human spirit.”

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