I put Stephanie M. Wytovich in the company of Charles Simic, Alison Eir Jenks, Stephen Dobyns, and Rain Graves: they are all poets who won’t let me leave poetry to die a slow death in unread journals and chapbooks and collections. It seems like poetry should be bigger than ever in this age of making things shorter and easier to absorb and Tweet (rights reserved?), but, of course, we know that is ignorant thinking. Many short poems hold within them more implicit meaning, more metaphor, more humanity and truth, more “you’ll get it if you think about it” than all of those “amazing” literary writers, blahblahblah, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen’s fiction combined. (So, you know where I’m comin’ from now.) I teach at a college and meet many, many writing students from other colleges, too, each year. Some of them want to write poetry because, in their minds, short equals easy, and many of the rest of them don’t care for it (poetry) or read it (except their own or that of their workshop classmates), often because they claim it is too hard to ‘get” since it’s too close to the poet.
It ain’t popular, widdle kiddies. It don’t get you no date for prom or no sex in a Mustang or 4×4 during a college football game. (But it might get you a clove cigarette and blowjob in one night.)
What I’m trying to say here is, despite having taught college Intro to Poetry courses, and enjoying such (I filled in while we were searching for a poetry prof—I’m a fiction guy), I am not awed by contemporary poetry very often. I like old-school sonnets and ballads and all them there kinda things better.
But Stephanie Wytovich’s poems in Hysteria blew me away, just like the poetry of the folks in my intro. (I see Nerduda and Plath’s influence, but Wytovich is her own poet.) Unique and original, her poems are dark, and some are disturbingly loving (what a cool pair of words: disturbingly loving), and they are crazy, and they are diabolical, and they are out there. But . . . bottom line? They are great, mostly. Great. If you like dark, as I do. But the objective person who shies from the dark will see them as having great craftsmanship, too.
The poem titles are enough to draw you in: “Axed,” “Baby Bump,” “Bathtub Romance,” and the poems do not disappoint. There are ironic poems like “Pick Up Line” that turn the tables on men, and others that do some of the same with bold language like:
“When you told me I could fuck you / I bet you weren’t expecting/ The knives, the long silver cocks / That I shoved up inside you / Like metal dildos . . .” (“Penetration”).
There is shocking language, yes, but there is also sad stuff, and real, and thoughtful. Though much of it is about violence and mental instability, it is never clichéd, never Plath and her Daddy issues, never hateful. It is “hysteria,” or, more aptly, “Hysteria,” a character the poet claims to have met as the inspiration for these poems. They, the poems, are mad, they are screaming, but they are also real and nuanced—it’s hyperbole with truth at its core, an overly exaggerated injustice worthy of a revolution, except this one is within an asylum of Hysteria’s (and Wytovich’s) making.
As Wytovich’s poem “Body Suit” says, “. . . it’s time to leave behind / This old carcass jumper / Step out into the real world / With my shiny new attitude, / Fresh off the press smell, /And skeletal grip on life.” Wytovich sheds the skin of poetry “as is” and takes it in a new, darker, and challenging but accessible direction.