Alison Stine: Review by Nick Ripatrazone

Wait by Alison Stine (University of Wisconsin Press)


Stine Cover




We know that charged whispers can be louder than screams, and the same goes for poetry. Wait, Alison Stine’s second collection of poems, is not a muted book; rather, a carefully calculated arrangement from a poet well aware of the need for the pacing of pitch. Several of the 38 poems in this book span two pages, and Stine’s talent for architecture is clear: her attention to threading sentences across lines feels more careful than deliberate. The result is authentic narrative poems, and a wholly singular, hauntingly pastoral vision.

     The title poem is written in the collective voice, and is a useful introduction to the book: Wait feels like a text composed of different perspectives, and yet they all reside within a similar tone. There is a clear dialogue between the sexes, a place where “men / called but could not find us.” Stine’s play with “wait” is rich. A curious verb, it at once represents the current action of anticipation yet requires the future condition of expectation. What is the point of waiting if one is not found?

     Wait chronicles the year leading to a woman’s marriage, though that through-line is fleshed with the eccentric characters and narratives of the setting. “The Flood” contains a return of the earlier collective voice:


     That be a dollar, said the Amish at market

     when we lingered over their bread,

     said as if willing the loaf’s transformation

     into our arms.


     Those sentences are parsed with careful line breaks; the phrases are bent, not snapped. Stine’s lexicon is not necessarily religious, but she’s certainly attuned to Biblical iconography. Her choices are not mere chaff; rather, “bread,” transformation,” arms” lead later into “lesions,” “wounds,” and the final lines of the poem:


     In ditches and gullies, the grass ran

     like cilia, and the water was not pure.

     No. It was full of us, flaked with rock

     and wood, the leavings of our bodies,

     which left us, floated, were lost.


     This fallen world is clearly worth observing, and Stine’s control over commas in the final three lines evokes Gerard Manley Hopkins’s careful application of that punctuation in the last line of “To R.B.”

     “Gossip” stretches Stine’s range, and though it lives in the same world as the more pastoral poems, it is a sure pivot in the book:


     I ballpoint pen-etched our names. I was high

     school. I was sweet breath, and when I caught

     him in the laundry room, I pulled him down

     in the lint.


     Those concerns return in “The Bicycle,” a deceptively simple poem. The verse moves in three acts: a girl who “practiced kissing on the ash,” who then drifts to “the backyard edge” where “my family threw / objects in anger” and she swears seeing “a bicycle, back end / smashed, tire spinning errantly / in wind, as though still believing / it could run.” By now the reader admits that Stine is up to something: this sometimes dark world is lighted with memory, with the acceptance of imperfection and the occasional destruction. Nearly every shadowed image is countered with delicate lines. From “Reelection”: “The wind makes / mouths of them, yesterday’s names” and “Only clothes will hold me to this world.” These lines are aurally precise and inviting without feeling mechanically so: the cadence of best speech has somehow been captured.

     Even the little moments of Wait are worth pause: in “The Flies,” our vision of such bugs is strengthened:


     Hundreds hatch like dollars shot in air,

     nothing gives sudden shape, humming

     their hope in the corners, tapping their legs


     against glass.


     The same occurs in “Impetus.” Stine’s control here commands consideration of her images: “In your arms, bulbs of tomatoes / hard, half-formed.” Low-register language firmly rooted as opening lines: the second-person gives and takes away just as quickly, with that consonant-heavy word, “bulbs,” a rich caesura. “Impetus” is a poem about tired land, corn burned from cold, “dried from the inside.” The narrator posits that “life starts / from the inside, bitter, compact, / and blooms as it softens, flushes / with age.” Life and death are never so far, and often the living is the instrument of that death, as the black birds “stripping / the trees, coring the sweet valves / peck by peck.” Rather than ending with such minute destruction, Stine returns to one of her favorite poetic tropes, the concluding question:


                                    Each year

     we have reason to take some part

     away. I hurried to bring it inside

     to the table. Didn’t I deserve that, one

     lobed fruit, to split, to swallow, myself?


     Despite such efficacy, sometimes the living fail, as in “Rabbit of the World.” How true is it that “All our meaningful speech would not heat / a cup of water.” “Salt,” possibly the darkest poem of the collection, leads with an epigraph from the 1896 Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine regarding a woman’s suicide by pressing “30 pins and needles in the chest region, over the heart” which were pressed-in with a prayer-book, and the heavy first line “You were the lover for which I bled.”  And in “The Ladder Tree,” where “the landscape turned against us,” followed by when “asphalt claimed the trees. Some were split / open, their insides tiny wires, fibrous, / still a mystery how we got them to live.” Nature laying claim with the violence of necessity.

     If Harry Humes turned his attention from Pennsylvania waterways to Ohio landscapes, he’d possibly birth something similar to Wait. The curse of the modern pastoral is keeping the country honest, avoiding overly lyric trills in an attempt to overcompensate for the constant minutia of technology. Stine’s wit and self-awareness of setting keep her words comfortably precise. Wait is an argument for the book: for the feel of the page, the integrity of the line, and for the immediacy of the real and palpable, even if that world is sometimes flawed.



Nick Ripatrazone is the author of Oblations (Gold Wake Press 2011), a book of prose poems. His writing has also appeared in Esquire, Kenyon Review, West Branch, Mississippi Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal.