Nathalie Stephens's Touch to Affliction is similar to There by Roy Miki (see review here); however Stephens is more successful at marrying the poetic and political together. Although the book suffers from a similarly joyless approach, Stephens pays much more attention to craft, sentence by sentence.
There's a surrealism and imagism in the background of Stephens' poems, which makes her sparse works more immediately appealing, if ultimately more difficult:
We are walking backward into our lives. Our cities are
incensed. They fester on our thighs. And we lick at them in
garish immoderate delight.
When colour comes we run. We have no idea why. (9)
Although Stephens commits the cardinal sin of overusing the inclusive “we” throughout the book (is there really a city on my thigh?), she's otherwise exceptionally attentive to language; notice the stilted but somehow luscious combination of sounds in the phrase “garish immoderate delight” and the subtle confusion of the line “When colour comes we run” — is the colour running as well, perhaps after us?
Stephens takes a painterly delight in her application as language, and although the book is (in many ways) an indictment of the inhumanity of this recent century (and a bleak elegy for a future already dead), it's still a very readable, enjoyable book. Early on, Stephens seems to suggest the project's poetics:
Affliction is a capital word. Affliction is the blood of poetry.
Don't misunderstand me. Through the window in the door,
I see the afflicted sky. It is afflicted because it is out of reach.
For a poet, this too might be the nature of language. And it
might also be the nature of the poet, in relation to others.
For the poet must make language into two things simulta-
neously: sobriety and passion. […]
Where is the poet who will return language to the body?
Where is the body that is prepared to receive language? (16)
Reading both There and Touch to Affliction back-to-back, I have to admit that I sigh with Stephens in her frustration at the absence of the poet capable of returning language to the body. So many of the books I read, these two included, toy with words in an abstracted, disaffected fashion that has no real immediacy or vibrancy … although I suppose it is naïve to be nostalgic for an Arcadian (and therefore imaginary) time when language was more communicative, and less circumscriptive.
Although I find myself bored of conventional poetry collections, which often seem tantamount to a series of laundry lists and overwrought anecdotes, I bristle at the detachment so many experimental poets exhibit in poems that often seem indistinguishable from treatises. Stephens is one of the few writers I would argue is able to craft difficult, intellectual, high-concept writing with linguistic vitality.
Her previous book, Paper City, is her best, and Touch to Affliction suffers a bit by comparison — it's not as ambitious, not as focused, and often repetitive. However, it remains a strong book, from a writer who is fast becoming one of my favourite poets (alongside Lisa Robertson and Jason Christie). Stephens is at her best when she combines powerful images with careful, deliberate meditation:
Here is where we begin. It is a distortion of ici and always
fleeting. What we touch upon is the better part of leaving.
We are dizzy with wanting and the paper-thin wrapper of
sleep, le vertige.
The cities will drive out their poets. With our battered fists
and our broken feet we will trample their streets. (69)
The play on “here” and “ici” is ingenious, and the allusion to Plato's Republic so subtle it might be missed — the reader failing to make the connection won't even register confusion or otherwise find herself frustrated.
Stephens is an exceptional talent whose greatest fault (in her writing) is a total lack of joy. In a book billed on its back cover as a “lament, accusation and elegy” this is perhaps not a serious failing. Despite such issues, Touch to Affliction is a tactile, consistently engaging work, and Stephens is one of our most overlooked authors — if you don't read this book, go read Paper City.