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Book Review: 'What Is Otherwise Infinite,' Bianca Stone

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Published January 26, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Bianca Stone - COURTESY OF DANIEL SCHECHNER
  • Courtesy Of Daniel Schechner
  • Bianca Stone

Bianca Stone is not screwing around. "Human Nature," the poem that serves as prologue to her new collection, opens by asking why people derive pleasure from "gazing / into enormous paintings of lost battles / the naked raped townspeople piled on the dying horses / and the indifferent pastures and frescos of gods."

While you ponder the brutal honesty of that question, the speaker moves on to a personal confession. "I have prevalences, forgive me, / for bittersweet liquids stirred with the poisoned hatpin," she admits. "I carry the spaces / between self-hatred and magnificence / between my breasts / through the metal detector I will never clear."

Astonishingly, by the final stanza, the speaker has somehow transmuted the horror of existence into a love poem: "That it is because / I haven't been touched nearly enough in one lifetime / to be satisfied—and now want you, / across all this dead gauze / to put your lips / to mine."

The poem's fluid movement from philosophical critique to personal anguish to the redemptive power of love — all in scarcely a page — is an alchemy that's staggering to witness. Luckily for us, Stone will revisit all of the themes she introduces here in greater depth throughout the book.

What Is Otherwise Infinite is Stone's third collection published by Tin House. Both poet and visual artist, she lives in Brandon, where she is creative director of the Ruth Stone House. Established in 2013, the organization works to restore the historic Goshen property where Bianca's grandmother lived and wrote. During the pandemic, it has offered classes, workshops, a letterpress broadside series, a writing retreat, manuscript consultations, an online literary magazine called Iterant and a podcast hosted by Bianca.

Stone's new collection plumbs the writing of "great departed men," whose search for meaning illuminates her own without overshadowing it. In "Marcus Aurelius," for example, a stray line from the third-century Roman emperor about fine wine leads to an epiphany: "I replay on a loop my one stoic consistency, / my middle-of-the-night vow / that I will start tomorrow / the essential dismantling / of how I live."

John Milton, René Descartes, Carl Jung, William Shakespeare, the Gospels — Stone wrestles and toys with much of the Western canon.

"How can we follow a vision, / manifest in cloth and be loved? / The Beatrices want to know," she declares in "Beatrices," speaking in the voice of Dante's muse. By the end of the poem, this voice has seamlessly morphed into her own: "Beatrice implodes in me // who too is made of that sentient / livid dust."

Lacing poems with allusions to authors of bygone centuries is a delicate business. When done well, references serve as an invocation, a poet's way of calling on the accumulated wisdom of the past to understand the present. In the process, though, poets run the risk of leaving their readers shrugging with unfamiliar references.

Stone has found the sweet spot. What Is Otherwise Infinite balances erudite philosophizing with razor-sharp imagery in poems that feel deeply relatable, personal and of our time. After the intensity of the first few pages, "Routine" begins: "Some days I get up to go for a run / but instead just sit in spandex / and write about the fog."

Stone's self-awareness instantly vaporizes any specter of academic posturing. Often these moments are sardonic or laugh-out-loud funny. In "Nature," she writes bluntly, "I don't want this phone; I want to kill God."

What Is Otherwise Infinite by Bianca Stone, Tin House, 125 pages. $16.95 - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • What Is Otherwise Infinite by Bianca Stone, Tin House, 125 pages. $16.95

These seesawing shifts in tone leaven the intensity of some poems while elevating the everyday quality of others. With the same scathing honesty that she uses to explore classic texts, Stone records her experiences of motherhood and marriage, addiction, depression, and, above all, her own indefatigable search for meaning.

Part of what makes this book so fearless is how candidly the author acknowledges her fears and how vividly she describes concepts such as anxiety and pain. "Every daughter / has a cage around her head / and a mother on the cross. // I always hope to take it off, and rarely do. / Instead, I climb up, like a child into the bed. / I nail myself beside you," she writes in "Other Wound."

In "Set Designer," Stone recounts raiding a liquor cabinet for a gallon jug of Dewar's and later jotting down a memo: "'remember how good it feels to be good to yourself.'" She has been "carrying it around with me ever since / hoping I will." That last line resists the easy trauma narrative of a completed journey from illness to health, addiction to sobriety. Reality is more complex than Hallmark cards, and poets are not here to lie to you.

Stone divides What Is Otherwise Infinite into four sections: Monad, Dyad, Triad and Tetrad. A nod to Pythagorean theories of the structure of reality, these titles also dovetail neatly with the book's theme of an individual's search for meaning through her expanding relationship to the world around her. The singular self eventually becomes the plural self by falling in love, then expands to three after giving birth. Pythagoras' tetrad, however, consists not of four points but of a more complex geometric shape: a triangle arranged in four rows like bowling pins.

Accordingly, this last section brings other characters into tighter focus, hinting at the importance (and struggle) of sustaining family and community. "Twins" opens with Stone's signature insistence on brutal honesty: "Mom says our father had to sit on her / to keep her from the abortion clinic." As if to defy the reader's temptation to read direct autobiography into the poem, the next stanza takes a lyrical leap, making room for the author to ruminate on human nature. "My brother and I looked hard for the house / of sweets, lost in the woods, confusing starvation / for gluttony," Stone writes.

After some glitteringly good description ("the unmoved mother / beautiful at her boudoir, lathered in her face mask / of decayed butterflies and lava, / her oubliette eyes and casual irises"), the third and final stanza returns to the present. "Ecstatic, my brother and I age simultaneously. / We twin-out poems in real time."

Besides writing poems, Stone has been a seminal force in the emerging genre of poetry comics: Her Poetry Comics From the Book of Hours (2016) is part of the visual-poetry series from Pleiades Press. She illustrated a 2020 children's book called A Little Called Pauline, adapted from a poem by Gertrude Stein, and collaborated with Anne Carson on the 2012 Antigonick, an experimental translation of Sophocles' Antigone.

Considering her delightfully macabre sense of humor and her prowess in visual art, it's not surprising that Stone has become a first-rate meme lord. (Memes, for those who've managed to avoid social media, are playful combinations of image and text, often crudely juxtaposing a familiar moment from pop culture with a humorous new caption.) On Instagram, for example, Stone inserted new dialogue into a screenshot from the 2002 film Spider-Man. When Kirsten Dunst asks Tobey Maguire to "Tell me the truth, I'm ... ready to hear it," he blankly replies, "Poetry is just a prose raisin" as Dunst breaks into tears.

Beneath the surface of this self-deprecating joke is the same sardonic voice we hear in Stone's poems. An uncomfortable truth slips in with the humor: Just like Dunst's character in the meme, we weep because we desperately need a way to make sense of the world. That's an infinite task, one that we entrust to our greatest poets — Bianca Stone among them.

'You Could Spend Every Night With the Television' from What Is Otherwise Infinite

The uneasiness of being alive wears you down.

So, you might sit with the television.

Your obligatory interview.

Fatal, in its mirrored posture.

One musical interlude after another.

All the universes of Star Trek

you haven't mastered. The unreal

digitally rendered areas of planet Earth

you will never enter. You sit down with it

like the detective who knows

way less than she's letting on

sits across from the cantankerous yet somehow

absurdly fearless criminal.

You'll be there all night, bluffing one another.

You could spend a lifetime

eating dried fruit

and nuts and wine

like an apostle resentful of the flock

in its huge vision

and not even fight the urge

to be given a better story

with all its core-crew immortality

and moral surrender. You'll accept it.

You'll sit down as a kind of equal in its light.

Like a painting that faces a window.

Two things requiring witness.

You will cancel each other out.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Philosopher Stone | Book review: What Is Otherwise Infinite, Bianca Stone"

Speaking of Bianca Stone, What Is Otherwise Infinite