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Under Review: Jason Stumpf’s A Cloud of Witnesses

(Disclosure: I originally wrote this for a website that didn't publish it. Oh well.)

A sputtering madman come too close to truth for comfort's sake, a sibilance, snake-like, winding through tall grasses of the mind, filled with visions in blinks and blasts, scenes that simmer and smolder and staunch away the blasé. Words that are caught within you, language in movement that molds the mover, reiterates the brain. These rhythms not only alter your patterns of thought, they re-lay the foundations. These are the ways of Jason Stumpf.

A slim volume, but not a thin one, his A Cloud of Witnesses is a taste upon the tongue, a dance of dialogue, words wrapping like ribbons around the little fingers of your brain. There is a music in them, these poems, a symphony told in blasts of scat beats, like thick little windows with differing views of a glorious whole. Take, for instance, this piece of “An Evening’s Entertainment,”: “The brute pianist broadcast the timbre of a piece not only by his digits on the tusks but in the way his nether-lip hung with each dissonance, quivered with each clever cadence to the one.”

These visions take the form of prose poems, mostly tight paragraphs, half a page at a throw. Not that they conform, however, to any paragraphic limitations, any inhibitions or predilections toward the expected. Dialogue, italicized, flitters through some of the works, a commentary either from or within the speaker or speakers referenced therein. Others, like “Line Upon Line” and “A Summary of the Missing Chapter,” read like lists. “How To Paint in Oil Colors” is told as a telegraph, stopped and started and stopped, like expressed breaths, shouts of insight from an unseen afar. And though they are poems, they are also stories, told tightly, in rhythmic breaths. “Dinner-Time,” for example, is short on words but long on implications: “Then, seemingly without alarm, in pantomime, and nearly in unison, each gentleman stretched his arms in an exaggerated yawn before excusing himself from the table, each one, to ensure the security of his secret.”

The use of language in A Cloud of Witnesses is masterful, meaningful, with the right words at the right time to pluck the right chords of the mind. Though the poems can feel disjointed, that disarray is played as a melody, rather than a cacophony, a swelling of symbol and metaphor. The lines have meaning in themselves and in layers and as pieces of a poem that plays its own part of a larger whole. There are sagas told in similes, lines thick with meaning implied and inferred.

There are references here, to the heavy hitters, the Joyces and Hardys and Tennysons and Nerudas, but also to films and paintings, and to that bounty of inference, the Holy Bible, from which the collection’s title is drawn and many of the poems’ images draw their inspirations. From “MCMXLIII,”: “From Adam to the epistles, male to mail, he read, and in dreams that year saw a flotilla of begats sailing near.” Stumpf is not afraid to cite his sources, to point to his points of inspiration, but the magic he makes from their collective spells is all his own.

In his “Epilogue,” the speaker makes a final request: “Things happen slow, you know, in plots so plan to stay a time and too, Dear Reader, burn this book when you are through, or else bury it. Idle things, they say, are the Devil’s.” Though I cannot condone this advice, I will request that if you should dispense with this volume after having consumed of it, that you lay its lines across your mind before you let it slip away. It won’t be hard to let them linger; they’ll find their own way in.

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