A Wild, Aggregate Mind

Reviewed by Brian Bartlett

“The potentiality of the page, the expectancy it sets up is related in my mind to . . . birth, hatching, sprouting,” writes poet John Steffler in this diamond-bright book of meditative prose. “The page can be experienced as an offering of food, as offering or receiving a gift.” Such metaphors hardly exhaust Steffler’s ways of thinking about our valuing of words. In his search for accuracy, he likens a page to a “room,” “axis point,” “passageway,” “performance space,” and “clearing in time,” each comparison suggesting different qualities in language. In saying that “the page is much older than paper or clay tablets,” Steffler also offers a view of contained, containing language that inhabits spheres beyond tactile materials.

Saying that a book seems several times longer than it is can be an act of praise. Forty-one Pages is compact and concentrated, yet also multi-faceted and densely lit (the diamond metaphor comes back to mind). The book’s title includes several curiosities. Forty-one Pages heads a book 119 pages long but built of forty-one parts, which range from cultural commentary and philosophical reflections to poetry discussions and autobiographical bits. The subtitle, On Poetry, Language, and Wilderness (reminiscent of Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness, the subtitle of Don McKay’s influential 2001 prose book, Vis à Vis), lists three of the book’s key themes, but it might also have included writing, culture, technology, Indigeneity, or silence. Steffler’s statement that “my own practice is largely a non-theoretical groping” is matched by his book’s structure, one less of procedural argumentation than of changeability and collage. Eight of the sections are new Steffler poems, their thick diction and excited rhythms boding well for the poet’s next collection.

Doubleness is a key characteristic of Steffler’s thinking. Of his own poetry-writing, he tells us: “I pursue whims, make commitments and betray them, contradict myself, hammer away stupidly at something.” He sees contradiction as inevitable, even desirable, as long as we don’t ignore either side of a duality. A two-directional approach is evident, for instance, when he writes: “Wilderness is what I want to leave alone and what I want to explore.” Other kinds of doubleness Steffler honours include those between thought and instinct; between the desire for closeness to one’s environment and awareness of “people whose ancestors have lived in this landscape for thousands of years”; between language as “still far and away humanity’s defining technology” and as “a kind of brainwashing it is good to question”; and between seriousness and lightness. (A voice asks, “Is flippancy sometimes a way to sneak up on meaningful ideas?” and a second voice answers, “Well, in heavy boots you can’t walk as far.”)

At times Steffler’s approach is appealingly personal, with touches of autobiography. He deals with giant matters, but authenticates his writing with reminders that an “I” is involved in creating all his pages. He speaks as one who grew up in English with Pennsylvania Dutch as a marginal language in his home life, both his paternal and maternal lines rooted in Germany of the early to mid-nineteenth century. “I have loved Europe,” he states, “and I still do.” On a few occasions he writes somewhat reductively of the so-called Old World, as when he claims: “In Europe even the wild animals, along with the landscape, have been fully incorporated into human culture, into custom and myth. . . . There’s a name, a story, some enveloping lore to cover every peril and mystery” (emphasis mine). When Steffler refers to “polished cultural amber in the European style,” he could be writing as a North American distant from the lived experiences of Swedish, Scottish, or German hiker-naturalists who experience a sense of wilderness that provides an authentic breakaway—in the context of their lives—from urban noise and overdetermined routine. Also, it’s worth noting that in New World Indigenous customs and myths, animal-human figures such as Raven, Bear, and Coyote are very blended in with human culture. (Steffler’s book also compelled me to pencil a question mark in the margin when it says that “in the Judeo-Christian tradition God is distinctly masculine: the Punishing Father”—which excludes images of God the Shepherd, the Vine, the Sacrificing Father, the Light of the World.)

One of Steffler’s most brilliantly argued convictions is that the sources of thinking and language aren’t confined to what goes on inside human skulls. At one point he employs the useful word “transpersonal.” To merely say that language is culturally shaped, Steffler shows, hardly goes far enough: “we appeal for words to come to us from a source outside our immediate control: from deep in the self, from the unconscious, from a legacy both human and nonhuman, from the depths of the sea.” The mind is often imagined as a concentrating agent, but Steffler also sees it as spread out, abroad, and absorbent, achieving “a basic wide-focussed awareness” and “a relaxed focus to the point of feeling diffused in the world.” It’s in this context that Steffler, skilled as an epigrammatist, comes up with the valuable phrase “a wild, aggregate mind.”

Forty-one Pages sees poetry as a means to fight back against linguistic tameness and anemia: “poetry wants to restore [words’] animal energy, appreciate the evolutionary legacy they carry with them.” As for Tim Lilburn in many passages of his poetry and prose, for Steffler one way of making language more visceral is to retreat from it and try to experience the world in its non-linguistic fullness; but as with Lilburn, repeated treks into silence, listening, and instinct must be followed by repeated returns. “[O]ne of the powers of the poet,” writes Steffler, “might be the ability to dispense with language—to spacewalk outside culture—to go about the world clear-eyed, intact and mute, and then to re-enter language as a voice, as a kind of body.” Elsewhere Steffler speaks of becoming “a kind of dissolved witness participating in the world—and then coming back to language with relief to be re-entering this articulate medium like my proper body.”

Language, then—however crucial are expeditions into speechless wilderness—remains a home, a body we belong in. It also makes possible this book, which is chock full of complex intelligence and fine artistry from one of our most significant poets.

This review “A Wild, Aggregate Mind” originally appeared in Poetics and Extraction Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 251 (2022): 179-181.

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