Steven Schroeder, A Dim Sum of the Day Before (Ink Brush Press, 2010).
At this year’s Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, at East Central University, I had the great pleasure of meeting Steven Schroeder. Schroeder is a tremendously prolific poet and a constant supporter of poetry in his involvement with the “Virtual Artists Collective.” As much as I enjoyed meeting Professor Schroeder, it was perhaps an even greater pleasure getting to know his poetry, including one of his most recent works, A Dim Sum of the Day Before. The book seems to have been composed primarily during one of Schroeder’s sojourns in southern China. It is not, however, a “touristy” book of naïve wonder. Nor is it a book that presumes to speak on behalf of the Chinese people who inhabit its pages. Rather, it is the poetic record of a wanderer in a land that is both familiar and alien to him.
This sensibility of the wandering outsider often leads Schroeder to compose poems focused on what one might call the “remainders”: that which is over-looked or left out. Stray cats, for instance, can be seeing scurrying about the peripherals of human society throughout the book, as in the opening poem “Mao’s Ghost Wandering,” which begins with “Gray tabby slips under a chair / at the empty table next to mine / silent, waits.” Stray dogs also seem to be frequent companions for Schroeder. In “another dance,” Schroeder says, “Black dog likes the sound / of my feet on paving stone, / picks up the pace,” an image which invites us to consider the stray poet and the stray dog as kindred spirits and temporary traveling companions. In fact, Schroeder often leads the reader to associate the almost invisible animal life of urban China with its human counterparts. Consider the first stanza of the first movement of the poem titled “year of the rat”:
The effectiveness and ingenuity of this sentence/stanza is its union of movement of thought with movement of form. The stanza both mentally and typographically draws a line from rat, through dog, to human. This movement is more than a clever trick; it is an impressive act of the sympathetic imagination. As an outsider, Schroeder sees what the person busy with the insider’s business inevitably misses, and what he sees, and shares, invites the reader to enlarge her sensibilities and sympathies, to think about what it means to be a sentient being in the center or at the edge of things.
These are, clearly, meditative poems, and it is in that reflective quality that they most resemble the great Chinese poetry that necessarily looms over a book project like A Dim Sum of the Day Before. To publish in the west a book of poems about China is to ask the reader to think about Chinese poetry, about Li Po and Tu Fu. Schroeder’s poems, however, rarely directly evoke these great Chinese poets. Rather it is in thematic focus that one hears the voice of literary tradition in this book. Traditional Chinese poetry, to my untutored mind, seems to derive much creative power from the tension between permanence and transience, between the Tao of the Confucians and the Tao of the Taoists. This same philosophical tension animates much of Schroeder’s work. In “a peculiar song” we are reminded of change, and perhaps industrial “progress,” though brief description of a drained pond which was once home to a flock of flamingos. Yet we are also reminded that change leaves ghosts, as a remaining “bird sings the absence / of a pink crowd / always present.” An even more powerful picture of permanence and transience is given in the image of Chinese men writing in water on the sidewalks, a trope used to beautiful effect in both “the calisthenics of rain” and “for the light.” In the former poem “Old men copy ancient poems / passerby know by heart.” The antiquity of the poems and the longevity of the men gives a sense of permanence, which culminates in the following line’s assurance that both the poems and the activity are permanently housed in the consciousness of the “passerby.” Yet in just a few lines we are reminded that the poems written in water “will last until water / turns to air under the influence / of time and sun.” Rather than resolves such a tension, Schroeder leaves it to linger in the mind of the reader, a reminder of the mysterious mixture of eternity and mutability in which we live.
Similarly, the latter poem states, almost paradoxically, “This text will not last.” The text in question is ostensibly whatever bit of Li Po or Han Shan has been reproduced on the sidewalk, but it also asks us to consider the book we hold in hand, making the this self-referential. Schroeder wisely and humbly does not consider his own work outside the bounds of time, which may just be one reason we can expect his poems to be with us for a long time to come.