Stephen Sturgeon, Trees of the Twentieth Century

Sometimes confessing to an invisible audience, sometimes to the poet himself, the impressive poetic debut Trees of the Twentieth Century consists of approximately thirty poems and communicates that which usurps prepackaged explanations yet desires to be heard using the human voice. What is experienced with the five senses—what makes us human—takes priority. This collection excels when read aloud, whether or not this was Stephen Sturgeon’s intention. The  intelligent search for meaning periodically surfaces, alongside themes of passing time, shuffling memories, the malaise of adulthood, desperation, the recurring realization of injustice and impending reality of temporal forces at play. Sturgeon is generous in sharing his philosophical inquiries, thoughtfully embedded stanza by stanza:

      What does it mean when things
present themselves; it means, it means that we
have seen them; that’s over. That’s over. (13)

Simplicity, associated with purity and grace, is a skill which many lack. Few have cultivated the patience of our ancestors—for better or worse. When something presents itself, it is often in one’s best interest to take the said object or situation at face value, despite a tendency to complicate, mask or layer, ranging from intention to the natural course of events. If it barks like a dog, it’s probably a dog—a hard lesson. The poet unearths such authentic perspectives, even if they are frequently singular to his own trajectory, hence the recurring presence of the “I” pronoun:

In the beginning I was happier.
The rocks spun. So close the air was to my face
I sparely breathed. (16)


Enemies, by chance, were my only peers.
I watched them, from on a hill, at its top,
thinking, everything falls down that will come up. (16)


      Once more
I consider the pedigree of time,
and see no puzzle to its address. (30)

Rarely does Sturgeon fall back on calculated, constrained rhyme schemes, but alliteration, consonance and clean, well-punctuated line breaks are his strengths, along with highlighting a lush life fueled by subtle obscurantism. Saturated with fertile garden and celestial references, the poet alludes to utopic ideals and fictions serving as fodder for the expectant, hopeful—even endearingly adventurous.

It’s hard to see into my garden
where the fence has been lovingly chewed,
so I write out a good-bye letter. (27)


What one astronaut says to another
is heaven’s business, communicable
by fusion and frission alone. (31)

There are moments in Trees of the Twentieth Century when Sturgeon appears to be archiving perceived discord and neglect; writers often adopt the responsibility of exposing that which others attempt to push aside or conveniently erase, opting instead to translate negativity into creation or acts of building and construction (to harness and reshape negativity for the sake of the new):

Beg for rest but real rest is work,
strong work. Pretend to know homelessness
and death to a fault, and talk about it,
because you’ve been homeless, because you’ve died. (41)


People saw a starving criminal
and mildly kicked me, or flicked me crumbs,
while I etched a new map of the world
inside my roving mouth. (14)

A keen eye notes when the world is not what was anticipated. Sturgeon’s intrinsic observations and gestures are bittersweet, enshrouded in familiarity: “The product of my infrequent employment is sustained illusion” or “There is nothing, nothing” or “Talk with old friends is the most pleasant and least enlightening kind of dialogue.” The poet combines the matter-of-fact and pedestrian with that which is beyond scope—the chased illusion of the improved upon, most fulfilling. He resigns to the beauty of an atheist’s secular world, yet with a personalized faith that the here and now matter. Both have always mattered, even if there is no trusted map.

“I think no matter where he goes,
if he arrives then he is lost.
Absence, to him, is a caress.”

“With every word, my final bow.
The moon erodes. The breezes flow.
I will become what I am now.” (36)

From Ingmar Bergman to Woody Allen to Edgar Allen Poe to Paul Celan to Tupac Shakur to Zola Jesus, the topic of death never ceases to light a mutual fire—it remains a universal mystery, overcoming diverse histories, languages and status. The messenger of a networked consciousness, Sturgeon collects sentiments associated with this existential conundrum—perhaps, with an ambition to placate or amend. We’re all in this together:

Mourning has levels to it, and we meet,
zipping different amplitudes in the shaft,
up down, sharing in transit a numb space. (13)


This morning I have seen my creature die.
It is not the sun that makes, or can feel
the interminable burning of standing still. (15)

Some would argue that familiarity breeds contempt, but for others, sound repetition is a sign of honed skill and prowess. To repeat or to allude to a previous thought adds newfound significance to it. Such a textual strategy shows that perfection can indeed originate from practice, returning to a thought or action so as to place it another context—if a thought still holds true, then it’s strong enough to survive. What better way to test a poetic meme than to alter or dissolve its neighboring milieu?

however the night was calm.
However the night was, the night was calm (47)

Individuals oftentimes write poetry, or write at all, because they urge to cover inexplicable terrain and examine experiences which haven’t yet been formulated. They have seen a very particular world, or they have not. Poets examine, enjoy and scrutinize what is there—and what is not. The notion of the solitary genius holed up in a remote studio is old news; the brilliant poet who represents a century or culture appears to be nonexistent. Sturgeon does not claim to see the world in a way which differs from his literary peers and predecessors; yet, he is aware that similar, sensory threads provide common ground. He addresses both the invisible gesture and subtle nuance; Trees of the Twentieth Century proves to be a labour of love. Poems in this collection are appreciated now, and certain poems—“The Confabulators,” “In Pursuit of the Curtain Rod” and “Parerga”—will be regarded for years to come. This text aspires to remap ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ boundaries between individuals, in hopes of locating a translatable middle ground, an accessible compromise of morphed, unseen energies.

You honor all that you want,
forging and forgetting slick orbits
that bind our vows in transparent movements. (13)

To see the review in context, click here.

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