Review of Universe in the Key of Matryoshka by Ronnie K. Stephens
Austin: Timber Mouse Publishing, 2014. $15.00. paper.
"This isn't a fairy tale—I am still afraid of mirrors. My chest is still a live grenade. Most days I have no idea what will set it off." With these lines, Ronnie Stephens makes it clear that Universe in the Key of Matryoshka will be a walk through a minefield of emotions: the searing contradictions of joy and pain, love and loss, pride and shame. In a straightforward style that is at the same time fist and open palm, Stephens gives his readers an all-access pass to each corner of his wide-open heart.
Poems that address childhood, love, fatherhood, teaching, and loss all carry the wisdom of lessons learned and the inherent doubt of living. We hear the wonder of the unexpected news of fatherhood in "Rest Mass in Utero": "If you could harness the power of a baby's heart, you could light an entire city./There would be nowhere for the night sky to go in a city like that." But then worry also comes to bear when those babies are born in peril in "The Expectant Father": "I learned the color-coded line graphs/of my children before I knew their eyes."
Stephens's unique way of understanding other people appears in many pieces, especially those about teaching. The students in these poems are fully alive, each with their own tragedies and victories, each with their own strengths. One poem that introduces us to many of these students at once is "Alternate Endings, or a Wish List for my Students:" "you are not homeless/your mother does not abandon you/the boy you carry in your blinking is not a fire blanket/there is still a fire in your bones." Through these poems, Stephens addresses the wide-ranging problems that today's students carry to school with them daily, problems that aren't carried in a backpack. And, in other sections of the book, that awareness of contemporary issues is raised, always with the most human eye—hurricanes, abuse, violence, and war are not abstractions here but the burdens of real human beings.
The most striking poems in all parts of the collection are rooted in the body, its betrayals and mysteries, how it huddles in the white-hot corners of memory, a container to be filled and emptied. In "Dear Ten Years Ago," we learn that "Shame is not the first time you decline an offer/to join a beautiful girl in the pool.The first time/you hardly notice. Shame is hot sweat on the upper lip./Shame is ten years later and mirrors still shake you." That shame is hard to shake. In "I Sing the Body Reflected," we hear that "Brick by brick/I felt myself coming undone. Demolition/is too often a lonely parade/of everything you hate about yourself/stretched out and marching through your veins." Even the dissolution of a relationship takes a bodily form in "Assymetry:" "One moves to the other side of city./Goodbyes fill up the throat and ache/like cancer."
Stephens hides nothing in these poems, walking us through time with the eye of a journalist and the heart of a friend. Both confessional and rooted firmly in the outer world, aware of all its miseries yet finding all the pinpricks of light—in the eyes of lovers, daughters, students and even himself.
You can purchase Universe in the Key of Matryoshka here.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of A House of Many Windows (Sundress Publications, 2013) as well as six chapbooks, most recently Encantado, a collaboration with artist Matt Kish from Redbird Chapbooks forthcoming in April. She is an assistant poetry editor for Extract(s), and her second collection is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016.