Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf, and who they are as a writer. Today Rob Setphens reads the poem, “The Star’s Etruscan Argument” by Aleda Shirley.
The poem you’re reading for us is part of Shirley’s Dark Familiar: Poems, which the publisher, Sarabande Books, markets as “poems for grown-ups who believe in life and death.” Can you tell us a little more about the collection as a whole?
Rob: The most stunning thing about Dark Familiar is that Aleda names several of the poems after sets of colors – “Brown, Black on Maroon” or “Blue Over Orange.” The effect is this amazing shading that tints every poem, and every read. And even the poems that aren’t named for colors often start with color as an anchor, as in the poem “Plaint” that starts: “Here, the sky to the north is a bright slate blue.” I always admired the way she was able to be so specific about selecting a color or color set for poems that so accurately pair with the content, as with the “mild gold light” and the “whiter, cooler, cleaner light” that appear in “The Star’s Etruscan Argument.” It’s a brilliant way to organize a collection, but also a very challenging task, to be so well-versed in color; Aleda pulls it off masterfully.
I also chose the poem because Aleda, who was my poetry teacher at Millsaps College, passed away in 2008 (two years after Dark Familiar was published) after a battle with cancer. I’m not sure how long she had cancer, but when I read the book now it seems like marks of that battle are there; it’s a beautifully haunting experience for me. In the poem “Phantom Pain,” for example, she says, “The dead leave us incomplete. It didn’t occur / to me the emptiness would be permanent, / that nothing that came after would ease the ache.” And that’s how I feel about Aleda, this amazing woman who made such a mark on my poetry and on me, that the ache of losing her will never quit be relieved.
Sundress: I sometimes wonder what insider information publishers hold. Perhaps Shirley had battled cancer once before and won, a “grown-up who believed in life and death”; maybe she meant something else altogether. Either way, I find it interesting that there is so much color in a book titled “Dark Familiar.” I’m glad you chose her poem to read for us.
It sounds like Shirley’s work was pretty influential on you even before all of the heavy biographical information you can read into it now. Tell us a little more about Shirley as a teacher and mentor before we take a listen. How has she had an impact on your writing?
Rob: Aleda taught me in several workshops. I remember that once, mid-semester, I brought in an overwrought poem that was a self-indulgent fantasy in which I encountered a fairy on a car ride; at the time I thought it was unique, but I’m sure it was riddled with clichés and sounded completely inauthentic because I was trying to be Spenser. Aleda called me on it – “you’ll go back to writing like you’re Rob, in plain Rob language next time,” she told me. That’s the way she was, no-nonsense and able to steer you out of a poetry sinkhole.
It worked because in her directness you always knew that Aleda really wanted you to be the best writer you could be. She gave me a beautiful gift: I could be, and still can be, Rob in my poems, something I wouldn’t be confident in without her.
Also, Aleda was basically a dictionary, and sometimes students would try to put words in their poems just to test her vocabulary. They never found a word she couldn’t fully define. It shows in her work, too, this extraordinary grasp on diction – I love the line, in this poem, “my mind’s reeling in huge ambits.” Ambits is an unusual but perfect word there, and her poetry is full of such diction bullseyes. Her influence has certainly made me become more diligent and precise in my word choice.
Sundress: I love how she describes the casino, almost like a short story—that must be her “plain Aleda language”—from what I gather, is representative of the volume. So, the million dollar question (although just to clarify—none of us are getting paid for this): out of all the poems and the moments in Dark Familiar, why “The Star’s Etruscan Argument”?
Rob: An obvious answer would be that “The Star’s Etruscan Argument” is the opening poem in Dark Familiar, and it certainly is one of Aleda’s aces. But for me it’s all about the eeriness that the poem conveys, what with the panoptical “invisible systems at work, & God not looking out for any of us from the inverted domes in the ceiling that watch & record everything.” Everything about the casino is too perfect – the light too clean, the money too easily exchanged, the food too plenteous. And this concept that we ostensibly choose to be there – “I could choose to be anywhere,” she says, “but I’m not, I’m in the hotel of a casino” – is equally unnerving. I love the tension there between what seems like personal choice and power and the way in which we are guided by a “fabricated soundtrack.” It captures something very empty about the human experience – the illusion of control.
Sundress: Speaking of tension, what struck me most was, “Their eyes gleam with hope & its opposite, which is also hope.” Maybe I’m reading into it here, but she seems to be saying that hope binds you just as much as it promises to release you.
Rob: I like your reading, though I’ve always read those lines a little differently: the opposite of hope, at least in this context, is despair. But what hope and despair share, I think, is a sense of desperation, a certain admission that we are not in the driver’s seat. The gambling table is this situation under a microscope: both the newbie gambler glimmering with hope and the addict who burned through her life savings and is pushing the betting button with nothing left but that button, with no expectation of winning, with a total despondency – both of those characters ultimately are slave to Fortune. And in this hope and despair I again see the paradox of control, or the lack thereof.
You might see, then, how it’s a strange experience for me to read this poem and this book knowing now about Aleda’s battle with cancer – I imagine that every moment and every choice had that hope and despair in it. Aleda could make decisions about the minutia of daily life without being able in control of her health. How can a person possibly confront that absurdity? All we can do is keep pressing the button (and we don’t even get to pull the lever anymore, as Aleda points out!).
Sundress: It does certainly does give the text a different reading; somehow, knowing the context “The Star’s Etruscan Argument” feels more like a metaphoric confessional poem. When I first heard the ending, “& God not looking out for any of us from the inverted domes in the ceiling that watch & record everything,” I took is as a general comment about the nature of consumption and solidity—the borderline omnipresence of the money-making machine and yet how disconnected we all are, even from God—slightly on the sardonic side. But now, well, I get the impression that perhaps Shirley was speaking a little more personally. Perhaps God wasn’t watching out for her.
I’m glad you brought her to our attention. I know that Dark Familiar was her final book, but do you know if she published any poems after? Or any thing else you can leave us with to mule over?
Rob: Thanks for this opportunity to share Aleda’s work. I don’t know whether she published more poems after Dark Familiar, but it wouldn’t surprise me – she was always working hard to keep poetry alive, which is the main reason why I chose to read her poem here, to keep her work alive.
For my last comment I’ll point to the ampersand that Aleda used throughout Dark Familiar – usually I’m often not a huge fan of that mark, but there’s something really perfect about the way she uses it. It’s quieter than “and,” more subtle, which is the opposite of how I think of Aleda, who was (at least as I knew her) extroverted and hilarious. But in this poem, Aleda establishes this incredibly intimate voice, a voice that feels like it trusts you despite everything else around being untrustworthy. And the ampersand is a part of that. I think that’s a wondrous feat, and I hope listeners can hear that in the way I read it.
Rob Stephens is a PhD student in creative writing at Florida State University. He writes poetry, children and YA books, and whatever else. When not writing, Rob is the social media specialist for Team Tangie Real Estate. In the past, he has written an e-book on the Paleo Diet and 300 questions for a 90s trivia game, but he is not an expert on either topic. In his spare time he enjoys playing and teaching board games, and once upon a time he earned a MLIS degree. He also plays piano and was a music major at Millsaps College. He may be reached at www.robthepoet.com.
Aleda Shirley was an American poet and the author of three collections of poems: Chinese Architecture (University of Georgia Press, 1986) and Long Distance (University of Miami Press, 1996), which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and Dark Familiar (Sarabande Books, 2006). Shirley passed away in 2008.