By all rights I really shouldn’t like Myrna Stone’s The Art of Loss nearly as much as I do. In fact, if I had happened to read this online review before buying it:
“The poet’s capacious vocabulary, sensitivity to the etymological implications of her word choices, ear for phonemic subtleties and hunger for verbal precision, apparent everywhere, give her unique access to the overlap of world and word that we are so often told is merely linguistic illusion. But for Stone, like Keats, the truth is proved ‘upon the pulse,’ and her truths, in their syntactical rhythms and syllabic music, are proven through a rhetoric of pulsations.”— B. H. Fairchild, from his Introduction to How Else to Love the World
I probably would not have bought the book which would have been too bad because I really liked several of the poems, like this one:
Taller and older than the rest of us, she arrived twice held
back, her past present in her eyes the way
the early-Winter light was
that December-—brutal, brilliantly clear, clarifying everything
and nothing. And we called her nothing
as real as her name, nothing
as benign as Rosie or Rose, nothing we could resist repeating
in covert whispers as we passed her desk
in the last row at the back
of the room, as though we understood even then that she-
with her waist, with her breasts and hips—
thought of herself as anything
but a child, as the sum of all we could and couldn’t imagine
her to be, as though we knew as well as she
how negligible, how transient
she was, that as she moved among us through the parochial
halls of St. Denis, dressed day after day
in the same washed—out
blouse while the boys openly mimicked her every motion
she was someone merely passing through
who would not be passed over.
I’m pretty sure this poem resonates with me because of an incident that happened when I was in the 5th or 6th grade in Concord, California. A truant officer escorted a boy into our class who had to be at least three to four or five years older than anyone in our class. He was tall, muscular and had beard stubble. I’m sure the whole class was dumbfounded by his appearance. At recess, everyone avoided him, and even the boys gathered and gossiped instead of playing dodge ball. Luckily for the boy, he wasn’t subjected to the embarrassment of being in that class for long as he left after a week or so.
It wasn’t until later that I realized, or was told, that he must have been one of the gypsy boys who traveled around the country with his parents picking fruit. Perhaps it wasn’t even until our family spent weekends picking walnuts that I realized this. Gypsy children often worked in the fields next to their parents and seldom attended school unless rounded up by truant officers. When they did go to school, it was often only for short periods of time because once the fruit crops were picked they left for the next crop. No wonder the boy was behind in his schooling.
The fact that I acted no differently than the rest of the class was particularly embarrassing in retrospect because all too often I was the outsider since my father was constantly transferred as he got promoted. Naturally an introvert, we often moved about the time I started to make friends at a new school. In fact, when I entered the fourth grade in a previous school I got into several fights because it was cool to pick on the new kid, and the only person I allowed to pick on me was my big brother who was four years older than me and who I eventually learned it was unwise to challenge unless driven to the point of despair.
Unfortunately, having taught high school for thirty years, I observed this phenomena all too regularly. I’d like to think that adults are wiser and more considerate of others than teenagers, but, unfortunately, current events would seem to suggest otherwise. Tribalism seems genetically ingrained and is too often culturally reinforced even by religions that seem to theologically promote the love of our fellow mankind.
In fact, the title poem, “The Art of Loss,” depicts Botticelli devastated by the burning at the stake of Savonarola, Botticelli’s inspiration, for heresy. I was a little surprised that Stone’s poetry, like Pastan’s, contained several poems that referenced famous artists since I seldom encounter that in the poetry I read.
Not surprisingly, “Love” often causes the greatest loss of all, but it’s not just romantic love that leads to loss. Stone’s “Camera Obscura” depicts how even the best-intended love can limit people, causing them to miss out on some of life’s greatest opportunities.
I’ll have to admit that several of the poems are too formal and too literary for my taste. That said, though I’m not ready to pronounce this great poetry, like all great literary works it leads us to empathize with others by seeing the world from a different point of view than we are used to. Our world definitely needs more of that right now.