Books of poetry are often declarations of intent. Susan Steudel’s New Theatre is like that. Start with the title: there’s a game there. Steudel’s ‘theatre’ isn’t a tradition of acting, nor a building in which such acting might take place, but something between a “new” name for human identity (one made of multiplicity rather than individuality) and a location for military engagement. Steudel brings great intellectual complexity to this game; although her poems are not made of traditionally lyrical moments, they nevertheless delight in a text-based conception of identity. Here’s an example of some of this conceptual lyricism: “Three shots reported. / Colossal iron bells. / Two lodged” (“A Regret”). Significantly, the trick of flattening the language into wooden prose here is as lyrical an effect as the lyrical harmonies it eschews. Not only is it theatrical, it’s an intellectual sleight of hand. The phonemes may not rhyme, but the thoughts still do. This intellectual echoing is the book’s dynamic.
Steudel’s path out of its maelstrom remains unclear, however. For instance, her untitled opening sequence—three short pages worth the price of the book—has enough unresolved complexity to form the crib for an entire volume, which could have eaten the lyrical snake’s tail in complex ways. Steudel’s actual approach, through futurism and VizPo deconstructions, is clever, yet does leave the problem unaddressed. Instead, she moves on to flex her poetic muscles in other arenas. The resulting lack of resolution is part of her game-playing. It’s a good chess move, but it also betrays Steudel’s strategy, which is more calculated than it might at first appear. In New Theatre, what poses as an exquisite progression via quantum leaps in logic is occasionally only a brittle collage of connections more deliberate than Heisenbergian. When Steudel’s futurist strategies spark, the presence of a directing consciousness vanishes; when her connections falter, that ego is back directing with a vengeance. Such calculated (and obvious) authorial intervention undermines Steudel’s actors right when they’re trying to establish themselves onstage. It’s not a negative criticism of the book; it’s just important to note that there are many things here left unresolved.
There’s great promise in the sense of aggressive manipulation throughout the book, as Steudel exploits texts to open pathways through the physical accretions around words, rather than through “meaning.” The thing is, though, both are expressions of authorial intention. In the title poem, it works. In the gaps and electricity between “Tea. The stain in the iris,” and “Evening. River ice clinking into water” (“New Theatre”), it works. In Steudel’s frequent Siamese twin structures, such as “unbroken line / accent in pink / untitled” (“Pinklist1”) and “vertical ascents / [many numbered paintings] / fragments” (“Pinklist2”), it works more aggressively, forcing its effects by mining dissonance. Thought is here the beginning and end of a world that exists within words. At their best, these poems do stretch toward a world beyond words through chains of intellectual epiphanies grounded in lyrical structures. The tension between the reality within the text and the reality beyond the text is, thankfully, an unresolved dynamic. I hope it remains so for Steudel in her work to come, and that it will grow in surety and coherence. One path toward the new theatre has been opened by Steudel’s engagement with this text. Now for the show.
Harold Rhenisch is the author of The Spoken World (Hagios) and ten other books of poetry. He lives in the Intermontane Grasslands, where he writes the agro-poetic blog, www.okanaganokanagan.com. In March and April 2013, he was writer-in-residence at the Skriduklaustur Arts Centre in Iceland (www.afarminiceland.com).