Reviewed by Elvis Alves
by Toni Stern
January 1, 2015, ISBN-13: 978-0692328774, Paperback: 76 pages
The poems in Toni Stern’s Wet read like a woman taking stock of life. This quality does not make the poems extraordinary. Neither does it make them ordinary. The poems inhabit a liminal quality that Stern succeeds in calling attention to. Wet proves that Stern is not oblivious to what is happening around her, probably because, as the title poem states, “I don’t trust my memory any more…” (44). She takes note of the goings-on and presents them as a platter to the reader.
The mistrust of memory, and therefore the need to take note of things is probed throughout the collection. Stern writes, “I’ve made this concession/to conformity and safety/brightening up my compliance/with the stubborn rebellion of paint” (Wet, 44). The act of writing (whether a song or poem), Stern seems to suggest, adds to what it means to be alive. Observing birds that fly into widows, Stern writes of those that do not die on impact, “…if we’re lucky/in a half hour or so/they recover/remember they’re birds/and return to the sky/full throttle” (Birds & Windows, 21). Crows are shooed in Sixteen Crows, but Stern warns “They picnic on us/when we’re gone” (39).
Amy Winehouse shows up in Elegy, “I watched her on You Tube/Her eyes, unblinking and opaque/gave little away/but her performances/were generous/full of risk” (34). What Stern was unable to see in the eyes of Winehouse, she was able to see in Winehouse’s performances. Therefore, Elegy is more than about a talent gone too soon. It’s about the recognition of what makes an artist great—the ability to take risk. One does not doubt that Stern sees characteristics of herself in Winehouse.
Thin has Stern wondering about how people, in particular women, see and act toward her. “’It’s because you’re thin’/ my husband explained/when I considered why/some people resent me” (59). When such triviality captures the imagination of Stern, she knows what to do with it because, “I’m for keeping the mystery of womanhood alive” (!, 56). There is definitely a welcomed playfulness in the poems of Wet. However, one needs to search for it. Any practitioner of mindfulness would tell you that everything is a teacher if we but pay attention. Fortunately, there are books like Wet that helps lead the way.
About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com