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Book Review: 'The Disintegration Loops' by Stephen Cramer

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Stephen Cramer - COURTESY OF HOLLY BREVENT
  • Courtesy Of Holly Brevent
  • Stephen Cramer

Stephen Cramer's The Disintegration Loops comes at the reader in leaps and bounds. Author of six previous books of poems and a volume of translations, and editor of the anthology Turn It Up! Music in Poetry From Jazz to Hip-Hop, Cramer teaches literature and writing at the University of Vermont and lives in Burlington.

For this poet, music is a cause for celebration.

The book's title poem has a musical genesis, drawing its inspiration from a real situation on which Cramer then improvised fictionally. In a 14-page sequence in sections, the poet reenacts a composer's rediscovery of a recording made decades ago, alternating his narration with observations in a ghostlier voice. When retrieved from a dank basement, the tapes are "already / flaking, the magnetic film / sifting to the floor like sepia / dandruff." What had been a complex acoustic architecture is now "shredded" and "peeling," with gaps widening eventually into silence.

"Off Minor: Sonnets for Thelonious," another poem in a series of "cuts" like audio tracks, invokes jazz innovator Thelonious Monk, whose zigzag cadences are recognizable in Cramer's syncopated homage.

On constant display in the collection are Cramer's rhythmic nimbleness and metaphorical daring. To see how enjoyably his phrasing and lineation ricochet, take one of his spring-loaded segments, transform the verse into prose and compare the two. With line breaks removed, here's an excerpt from "Lipstick," in which a passel of boys war-painted with their mothers' makeup run amok in a neighborhood:

The knot of six or seven boys

dashed back and forth against

the strobe of sun through pines,

lipstick slurred across their

chins and cheeks.

This is potent writing, but it's striding rather than leaping, in contrast with how Cramer actually stages that passage:

The knot of six or seven

boys dashed back & forth


against the strobe

of sun through pines, lipstick


slurred across their chins

& cheeks. I stumbled,


a few delirious streaks

crosshatching my brow...

This isn't just sitting on the page. It's happening there, switched on, with long sentences stretched over an armature of short lines.

Many poets use ampersands in lieu of "and," a choice that sometimes seems affected. But Cramer turns a phrase on this typographical device as a dancer swivels, propulsively. From "The Muddy Tavern Blues":

...Out back, the riverbed


is silvered with scales, a living

schist, a thrashing hoard of glitter


& blood. Wave after wave

of salmon, coiling


& uncoiling in the dark.

Also unusual in this book is the way Cramer plants anecdotal bits — gleaned from the news, plucked from the internet? — in a poem and then expands and amplifies them. In "Space Oddity," an endangered rhinoceros is airlifted by helicopter to elude poachers. In "Spur," German villagers in 1347 throw jewelry and money over a monastery wall in hopes of buying safety from the plague, but the monks throw the valuables back. In "Moonlight," a window washer, costumed as a superhero and suspended alongside a high-rise children's hospital, gives the kids inside an astonishing visitation.

The Disintegration Loops by Stephen Cramer, Serving House Books, 104 pages. $15.95. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • The Disintegration Loops by Stephen Cramer, Serving House Books, 104 pages. $15.95.

Cramer uses such incidents to launch extended metaphors and spiraling story lines. The rhino poem slides lyrics from a David Bowie song in among quick depictions of the rescue crew, "Becky & the boys."

Poems about a musical genius' addiction to sugar ("Coltrane's Teeth"), the forgotten painting "a quarter inch behind" Michelangelo's Vatican masterwork ("Sistine Ceiling"), a sea turtle that mistakenly ingested 915 coins ("Bank"), and a soldier in Zimbabwe who transforms a machine gun into a saxophone ("Solder: A Debate") all originate in the snippets of "information" that bombard us in broadcasts, streams and feeds.

As an artist, Cramer reaches into that pell-mell torrent and takes hold of what he can use, finding not only detritus but also the heartrending predicaments of fellow humans.

Ever on the go, he keeps changing his point-of-view persona. A reader moving from one poem to another will need a moment to adjust to the new voice he's using: a man whose skin is entirely inscribed ("Tattoo Suit") or a primeval elephant, just unearthed ("Mastodon").

Even at its most serious, The Disintegration Loops is a rollicking reminder that one of poetry's most welcome offerings is the sight and sound of words at play.

From "Tattoo Suit"

I can step into attitude

or shed it

with this sham skin


aswarm with ornaments

& charms: the weightless

anchor on my forearm,


the choker of barbed wire

shielding my clavicle,

the inky blooms


climbing the trellis

of my ribs. It's thrilling

to slip so easily


into another's skin.

As I wander among half-dressed

vampires & ghouls,


& the poor mermaid

on my side stares

from her puddle of blue,


I feel for moments at a time

that I've entered the ranks

of the cool...

Listen to Cramer reading selections from the book (with a guest appearance by a chicken) on his YouTube channel.

The original print version of this article was headlined "On the Verse Beat | Book review: The Disintegration Loops by Stephen Cramer"