Stanzas: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

Cate Lycurgus

Summer 2019

For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of poetic lines. This week, Cate Lycurgus—winner of our 2018 poetry contest for her poem "Locomotion"examines "RR Lyrae: Matter" by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. 




He still exists as flesh; it’s the idea
that’s dissipated—: husband :—what was he?
But a word I loved? There is no panacea
for missing syllables: his body: we
all know what matter’s mostly made of—: space
obtains—: One day I realized I believe—:
the space in everything is God: that force
of present absence: pen: expanse: I grieve—
] old fashioned: distance: squinting it into view [
between body and name—in here!—I’m loose
as love is—: nebulous—: what good
this pointillism—: our eyes won’t do—:
Sometimes the absences in us seem so profuse,
I wonder we don’t pass through wood.

—"RR Lyrae: Matter"

The poems that have meant the most to me are the ones I don’t want to leave. The ones I enter intrigued or delighted, which then haunt in resonance—an echo I cannot shake. One such stanza comes via Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, from her book ] Open Interval [. An open interval has no end points, and this poem meditates on distances—celestial, relational, linguistic—pointing to the inevitable gap between what we say and mean. Since RR Lyrae—a star cluster in the Lyra constellation—pulses, it can be used to measure distances. Like the stars’ pulse, the dash-colon used here enacts both a pause and also an equivalence, and thus provides one attempt at measuring.  

Another attempt is the poem itself: the stanza of the poem, quite literally the room of it, has studs one might recognize—a rhyming sonnet with octave and sestet—and yet there is in them a rot that spreads rather than resolves, as problems are wont to do. Despite the dissipating connection that makes the word “husband” (and thereby language’s ability to name) useless, this grief of a dissolving marriage turns into an ontological, or theological discovery: “One day I realized I believe—: / the space in everything is God.” She makes the holey grief holy. And she tries to see the big picture through the artifice of pointillism, but neither works entirely—and so the sonnet-song here becomes essay also—assay of attempt. Register shifts of lines like “what good / is this pointillism” call to mind the more colloquial “what’s the point?” and highlight the paradox of squinting to better see. Where else but in the room of a poem can that make perfect sense?

When we get to “I’m loose as love is—: nebulous—:” I think of “nebulous” as hazy, indistinct, confused, but it also contains deep space and stellar. How many definitions of love resonate here! Van Clief-Stefanon gives us constellations of meaning to trace. And perhaps the end makes me sit in the poem’s room longest—I wonder—what does pass through wood? What matter are we, then? I can only come up with electricity; a current can strike and pass through wood, shattering trunks to flame. Maybe absences make us light. Make us bright as stars.

Cate Lycurgus’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Tin House, Orion, and elsewhere. A 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship Finalist, she has also received scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and was named one of Narrative’s 30 Under 30 Featured Writers.

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