Tricky Serum: An Elixir of Poems – Dan Stone (Lethe Press)

Buy it direct from Lethe Press or from our store – Tricky Serum: An Elixir of Poems

Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a live simulcast of the
Lincoln Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company (with Patti
LuPone and Neil Patrick Harris).  When
leaving the theatre (after lifting up a silent prayer of immense gratitude for
technology that always those of us in the hinterlands to enjoy the magic that
is the New York stage), I said to my friend, “I don’t know how anyone
negotiates an emotional life without the help of Broadway musicals.”  I wasn’t joking.  Lyricists like Stephen Sondheim, William
Finn, John Bucchino and countless others have the capacity to combine
recognition and revelation in one or two well-crafted phrases, such that one is
reoriented to the world and its fundamental character.  While these luminaries need not fear any
stiff competition from Dan Stone, in his recent collection, Tricky Serum: An
Elixir of Poems
, Stone sometimes manages to capture an insight so perfectly
in an unexpected turn of phrase that the reader cannot help but pause to adjust
to the new vision made possible.

claims that his “poems address the trick prospect of elixirs . . . the quest
for the substance of our dreams, the magic potion for fulfilling what we hold
to be our fondest and often most elusive desires.”  With this description in mind, I found the
second section, “Orpheus Ascending,” the most successful in the book.  Here, Stone juxtaposes poems with a light
touch alongside those with a bleaker ethos, poems about lust with poems about
other emotional states, poems that seem fairly straightforward with poems that
are more ethereal.  “Seeing in the Dark,”
for example, describes the pleasures of watching a lover sleep, but the opening
line “You slipped away first,” evokes a larger relational context in which the
poet is rarely the one who gets to watch, observe and enjoy his lover in the
“warm bath of a night.”  Similarly,
“Keepsake,” which contains a plea about storing a poem “I wrote for you” in the
“right” place, offers a mournful meditation on getting lost in the clutter and
debris of a lover’s life.  In “Rough,”
Stone explores the problematic of sexual consent, and in “Flash of Abdication:
The Mirror Smashed,” probably the best poem in this section, the poet declaims
all the identities he will not assume for his lover:  “I’m not the priest who lets you off the
hook,/not your knight in armor,/not your long lost you come home/to
claim his rightful place./Not the sacrificial lamb/and certainly not your
savior/sent to make sure you feel good . . . ./I’ll just be over here,/knowing
you can do it,/happy to be off the cross./If you need a different frame,/you’re
more than welcome to the wood.”  It’s not
that any of these images bristle with uniqueness, but their precise combination
and their specific inflection provide fresh perspective. 

collection’s opening poem, “Longings and Gratitudes,” contains one of Stone’s
most memorable lines.  When describing
what it feels like to live alone, he writes, “I notice sometimes/when I pack to
leave/and there’s no toothbrush/widowed in the stand,/content to save my
place.”  Similarly, “Playing Games” takes
a very familiar idea as its starting point, but cleverly uses common children’s
games as metaphors for the behaviors expected of the poet and his lover.  “Two Tickets” captures beautifully the
various anxieties that bubble up when waiting for a date to arrive and “Tattoos
and Torn Jeans” characterizes writing as a form of sexual appropriation.  Overall, however, the poems in Part One, “A
Dream about a Dream,” in which the poet expresses his struggles to find love .
. . to overcome his “onlyness” (“The View”) struck me as a little too obvious,
a little too one note, a little too desperate. 
“Stuck,” for example, is a mournful ode to the desire to change one’s
hairstyle and not being able to do it, and “The Kiss I Want” seemed to be
trying a bit too hard.

poem’s of the collections final part, “Tricky Serum,” were the least
successful.  Voiced as Oprah
Winfrey-esque speech about self-love and receiving back one’s intentions from
the universe, they read like a paraphrase of The Secret.  (For readers who find this kind of
valorization of self-esteem to be an important and insightful intervention, the
poems of this section are as thoughtfully crafted as those found in the rest of
the collection.)  Even here, however,
Stone demonstrates his capacity for making images that might seem overdone
fresh through his gifts with language. 
In “Searching for Oz,” for example, Stone returns to this gay classic,
but uses the reader’s familiarity to his advantage: “It’s not about forgiveness
from sin/despite the finger still pointed by false prophets who straddle truth
like a broomstick/between their fat thighs./They have no power here.//Since the
cyclone swept us away/it’s a world no longer in black or white./There’s so much
to see and the freedom to play,/to dance in the street and to sleep in a
field/of wide-eyed late bloomer/who also fell out of the sky.”

as Stone represents the collection as addressing “the substance of our dreams .
. . [and] what we hold to be our fondest and often most elusive desires,” I
found his vision too circumscribed. 
According to this set of poems, our dreams have to do only with finding
romantic love, a compatible sexual partner and the ability to love our
selves.  Is this the range of our
desiring capacity?  What about our wishes
related to family (of choice, of origin), health, world peace, spiritual
insight, human dignity?  What about the
pleasures of work, friendship, political struggle, art?  As noted throughout, Stone has a genuine
capacity for restating and reimagining what we think we know in new terms, he
has the ability to say what we have only been inchoately thinking and revealing
us to ourselves.  It would be interesting
to see him expand his vision more broadly to the various aspects of life that
evoke desire and about which we dream.

concludes his collection provocatively. 
As he states at the beginning, “the poems are intended to read as a
progression, a journey through the process of seeking, finding and
relinquishing our convictions about what we need or want . . . .”  But the last line of the last poem in this
progressive journey suspends the journey’s conclusion:  “There’s a natural rhythm to creating,/ a
single-mindedness that show/I’m just getting started.”  So, Dan Stone has not finished trying to
enchant us yet.

Reviewed by Kent Brintnall

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