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Stephen Cramer's Poems Sound Like Music


Published April 27, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

Bone Music by Stephen Cramer, Trio House Press, 106 pages. $16.
  • Bone Music by Stephen Cramer, Trio House Press, 106 pages. $16.

If there were a CliffsNotes version, or a summative tweet, for Stephen Cramer's new poetry book Bone Music, it might be the last line of the last poem in the volume: "the more broken we become, the more music we can spin out of our bones." Many of the works of this writer and University of Vermont lecturer use historical and musical specificity to tease out broader — and poeticized — experience.

Bone Music received the 2015 Louise Bogan Award from Colorado-based Trio House Press, which published the book this year.

The line quoted earlier, excerpted from the book's title poem, has its origins in Stalinist Russia. The difficulty of importing Western music led to the development of an underground X-ray press, or roentgenizdat, which illegally distributed records created from hijacked X-rays — hence "bone music."

Cramer first heard about bone music on an episode of the podcast "Radiolab," he said in a recent interview: "The most life-affirming thing on bones was too big a metaphor to let go." Bone Music joins Cramer's four previous volumes of poetry, each of which likewise has a strong musical theme indicated by its title: Shiva's Drum, Tongue & Groove, A Little Thyme & A Pinch of Rhyme and From the Hip. That last is a history of hip-hop in sonnet form.

Not surprisingly, Bone Music is a study in connecting sound and meaning, time and human physicality, using myriad music- and musician-related references. The book's 29 poems are divided into four sections, each including two fixed-form poems about American jazz musicians Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Bud Powell and Art Pepper. All five recorded and made their names during a period roughly coinciding with the USSR's bone-music phenomenon.

Cramer's homages to these artists are sonnets, villanelles, haikus or pantoums; rhyme abounds and is often slant. He hopes his take on classic form poetry is "a little bit more modern," he said, having employed altered spacing and repagination to defy traditional guidelines.

For example, both of Cramer's "Sonnet[s] Ending With a Line by Miles" are 28 lines long — double the length of a traditional sonnet. In this case, the doubling is a feat of spacing and not of added content. "I feel like jazz musicians work with a set form, and then improvise within that form," said Cramer. "That's what I'm trying to do."

Improvisation is fruitful for him in other ways, too. Bone Music's opening poem, "Cold Was the Ground," alludes both to the biography of Blind Willie Johnson and to the gold records placed on board the Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Johnson's blues song "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" was included on one of those records.

Cramer's "Cold Was the Ground" opens with the image of Johnson's song floating through space. It later conjures up the image of the bluesman in "a rain-soaked / bed of newspaper & soot" that was "beneath a ceiling / not of wood or plaster / but of stars." Cramer's repetition of that celestial imagery was not premeditated, he said. "When that image recycled, it was like, Hell, yes. That's what I write for: moments when the unexpected happens."

"For me, poetry wants to be music," Cramer asserted. About reading aloud, he said, "[Poems] don't just want to remain on the page. They want to be out in the air — that's their natural habitat." His words and stories are replete with this equation of life and sound. Making space among the endless loops of word, sound and experience, Bone Music is both about and of music.

Cramer reads from his work at the Second Annual Celebration of Burlington Poets, featuring 26 poets in total, on Saturday, April 30, 2 to 4 p.m., at Fletcher Free Library in Burlington; and during a poetry event on Monday, May 2, 8 p.m., at Light Club Lamp Shop in Burlington.