Ill Angels by Dante Di Stefano / Etruscan Press / 2019 / ISBN 9780998750880 / 92 pages.
We rarely think of angels as being ill. If we make the assumption that “ill” is being used here in the sense of “bad,” most are considered to be good but then we remember Lucifer, the wildcard in the pack. Judging by the quotations that preface this collection, these are the ill angels referenced by Edgar Allen Poe in his poem “Dream-Land” and the illness is that which is referenced by the Beastie Boys in the lyrics of their iconic song “Time To Get Ill” from their album Licensed to Ill. The poetics of ill angels is the poetics of rebellion, an exploration of the dark side of the heart.
Dante Di Stefano’s subjects are predominantly his family, his students, favourite writers, jazz and American politics. Some poems are written in response to news items and others in response to works of art. Many of the poems are very specific in their focus. The titles, which often give a name, a season, a place or the age of the subject, offer the reader a context in which to place the poem: “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen,” “Reading Rilke in Early Autumn,” and “While Listening to Coleman Hawkins’ ‘Picasso,’ I Remember My Mother as a Young Woman and I Imagine My Wife in Her Old Age.”
Angels appear twelve times throughout the collection. They come in different guises according to the context of each poem. In “Einstein’s Sparrow” they are statues, in “Solo” they are beings that can be talked to, in “Fat Tuesday” they are rattled and in “Channelling Sonny Rollins” they are inside his eardrums. One way or another, they maintain a constant presence throughout the book.
In his titles, Dante Di Stefano often pitches one subject against another: “Love Poem Written While Listening to ‘Alligator Crawl’ Repeatedly and Misremembering Lines from Kobayashi Issa,” “Brief Instructions for Drawing a Self-Portrait While Listening to John Coltrane,” “Brief Instructions for Drawing a Portrait of My Wife After the Most Violent Week in Recent U.S. History.” Much of the content of the poems that follow hang on this framework as they explore links between each subject. Other poems move more smoothly from one link to another, not with a leap of the imagination, but one step at a time. Their progress is more logical on a first reading.
In “Brief Instructions for Drawing a Self-Portrait While Listening to John Coltrane,” each stanza, with the exception of the final one, begins with the words “To draw the…” and then moves from the eyes to the lips to the jawline to the ears, etc. “Wilding Orchards” runs through the gamut of a number of apples whose names add a sense of beauty and surprise to the vocabulary: “Harrison, / a yellow planet pocked with marks that map / a cosmos; Bedan, greenish beacon lit / on the edge of an open windowsill; / Domaines, the blush of bittersweet first love;” etc.
In “Jubilate Pluto,” Stefano lists a range of things that happened in the year 1930 – the year that Pluto was first recognised by an American astronomer. The list, like the apples just cited, is eclectic. Stefano surprises the reader who never knows what is coming next, with his list of events:
….For that was the year
Mickey Mouse first appeared in comics,
the Vietnamese mutinied against
the French, Twinkies were invented, Gandhi
marched to the sea, and, in Indiana,
a crowd lynched Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
In “Illuminating the Initial ‘D’,” the same, logical, structural process is used again, but this time, as with the other examples I have given, Dante Di Stefano does it in an equally different way. Once more, his structure leaves room for him to pull surprises. With everything revolving around the letter “D,” the world is his oyster:
….D is for duende, for dill
pickles, for Dr. King, for Django Reinhardt
strumming je t’aime somewhere beyond the sea.
D is for dolphin and dauphin, for dukes
of Hazard and Earl. D is for D cups
and dittos and dungarees and John Donne.
Dante Di Stefano sprinkles the titles of his poems with references to poets such as Dante, Rilke, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Carlos Williams. He writes poems “after” certain poets such as John Berryman, Derek Mahon and Frank O’Hara and there are dedications to other poets such as Maria Mazziotti Gillan. He quotes poets such as Philip Levine and Gerard Manley Hopkins and in “Kwansaba Suite from the Heaven of My Departed Poets,” he writes stanzas addressed to poets such as Phillis Wheatley, Anne Bradstreet, Walt Whitman and C. D. Wright.
In “For My Creative Writing Students,” he remembers what it was like to set out on that first voyage of discovery:
For now, you coast on the cool grass of May
and think of the future only vaguely;
when you do, it is a mile wide and full
of stars. When you write it out, you call down
Andromeda and parse the clustered light,
but this is merely a kind of dreaming.
Stylistically, the majority of the poems in this collection are in free verse form but there are also 19 poems written as sonnets and a few prose poems. On several occasions Dante Di Stefano stretches the rules of grammar by turning nouns into verbs which the purists among us may find irritating. Angels apart, religious imagery and religious vocabulary is used extensively throughout the collection.
Assured and inventive, these poems will surprise and delight those who enjoy carefully crafted reflections on love, life and everyday living viewed against a backdrop of literary and artistic learning in twenty-first century America.