Thursday, May 9, 2019

Stephan Delbos: Light Reading

Many poets and teachers of poetry have spoken about poetry happening in the white space between the lines. Many implore their students to subvert the reader's expectations. Few poets write poems that demonstrate, so graphically, both of these strategies simultaneously. Even fewer do it well. It may be hyperbole to state that Stephan Delbos, in Light Reading (BlazeVOX [books], 2018), breaks new ground, but it would not be going too far to state that he crumbles clods, previously unbroken, that have lain untouched since the first pen plowed poetry's open field.

These first two poems are emblematic of the first of three sections titled "Light Reading." The capacious white space on the page enacts the title section of the book, and the position of the titles following the poems, not only subverts the reader's expectations, but also provides an interaction between title and poem not available when the title appears before the poem. (Please scroll down to see poems.)

(shakes speaker)


I think I
will still
to survive

-'s static
soundtracks me

Twenty-first Century Man

"A bagatelle," Delbos tells us in the Notes, "is a French term meaning a trifle. It is most often associated with short classical music compositions." In Delbos's second section, "Bagatelles for Typewriter," poems come closer typographically to what we've become accustomed to upon opening a poetry collection. However, they are anything but ordinary in diction or in their references to persons, places, and things. Fortunately for us, there are enough connections with common experience, and the language is so gorgeous, that even without consulting the Notes in the back of the book, we can enjoy these poems. I found that reading them twice, once before and once after the Notes, enhanced my experience. The two examples I share below are the only two that appear with lines that the formatting of my blog will accept. The others are lines stepped down, stepped up, spaced out, and spaced with variable margins unique to almost every line. It would be unfair to present them in the altered form made necessary by the limited word processor in my computer.


April shows a nipple but only one. For five days

I have sold my waking hours. A fool, like the cook

who walks ranting from the closet kitchen with plates

shaped like frisbees long slow prayer of spring

park afternoon, perfect toss unlabored, hovering

may not deign to sink unlike my plate

of tofu, rehydrated mushrooms, yellow peppers,

ginger slop and rice; half-drunken lunch. Never

was I so alone. Such lunch! Tu Fu's buddy Li Po

died trying to hug the moon with sodden arms

reflected in a river. In my mind sometimes I am

in China, falling through the Chinese air,

pockets filled with teriyaki chicken wings. I live

a six-month journey from my parents, wear

their ages, a grandfather clock earring. Pain.

What the T'ang poets took for granted: language

outlives us. The waitress asks do you want chopsticks?

Of course but rice is difficultly singular so I lick

surreptitiously the plate when she goes. Spicy


Apart from the luscious language in the titles that does not weaken once we enter these poems, my comment about Delbos' bagatelles is that the lines read on the page longer than they do aloud. Notice the many decasyllabic phrases and sentences that seem to have the diction under control in this poem: "April shows a nipple but only one." "For five days I have sold my waking hours." "In my mind sometimes I am in China." And yet the lines continue beyond these complete sentences, crowding, sometimes intruding upon, the white space as if language itself had grown hungry and restless in the previous section, and is now having its way, or being allowed to take its head for the first time in the collection. Although I doubt that the poet calculated a language of invasion at lines' ends, it is interesting to examine what words actually do push against the right margin beyond those ten syllables:

"...A fool like the cook
...with plates
...Li Po
...sometimes I am
...wings. I live

These bagatelles' titles promise much; and the poems do not disappoint.


Thoughtless on a sunny day | empowered by the radiance | let us pray

forgive the merciless | indifference we pay | tabernacle

and tackle box | how easy tiny joys | elude us

Joy eludes us | yet we | preening | pride

in the annihilated need | to kneel before anything | unless observing

ceremonies necessary | to get ahead | to heaven or the boardroom


As an altar boy I loved | velvet silences of sacristies

brass taper-holders | bell-shaped snuff that flamed a hand

to reach me as I | mischievous | melted old wax

with a wooden match | hollered | in my head the Devil

I felt had found me | a moment before | returning to

the grim serenity of God

This bagatelle goes further than the first, giving us added visual cues for alternative line/breath breaks, and further enacting, with a typographical variation of the previous poem, what the "Light" of "Light Reading" is always doing: waxing and waning.

The final section ("III. Arrangements") is a logical extension of the first two, combining terse statements of prosody, such as those found in poetry assignments or prompts, with aphorisms of philosophical and historical import, often juxtaposed, anachronistic, or tongue-in-cheek. Ten poems of ten numbered lines round out this brilliant collection of minimalist pieces, bagatelles and what Norman Finkelstein has called "tongue-in-teach suggestions for his fellow poets [that] turn out, ironically, to be wise advice despite themselves." Here are the first, fifth, and final. My apologies to Stephan that the way he titles these poems (Roman numerals inside "less than" and "greater than" signs) are symbols that my blog misunderstands. I have simply used the numerals.


1. A poem in terza rima
2. A poem of 18 lines
3. A poem containing the phrase coin slot
4. A poem rhyming beguile and tinfoil
5. A poem with two mirrored meanings
6. A poem under the sign of Scorpio
7. A poem undertaken in November
8. A poem that knows it is a poem
9. A poem titled "Apostrophe"
10. A poem that never asked to be born


1. A poem in bio-waste bag font
2. A poem holding its breath
3. A one-lung poem
4. A poem that cannot hear itself think
5. A poem getting on my last nerve
6. A poem huffing oxygen
7. A poem title is the last line
9. A poem with seven mono rhymed lines
10. A poem curing emphysema


1. A poem on a dryer sheet
2. A poem with static cling
3. A poem stuck to that first May
4. A poem losing its virginity
5. Pediddle poem a punch buggy
6. A poem that could save any Amy
7. A poem that hasn't read Ulysses
8. A poem that hates talking
9. This is and isn't the end of the poem
10. A poem with too many doors

Light Reading is a poetry collection with plenty of front doors, back doors, and side doors. Some stand open, some have to be opened, and others have to be knocked down. Most are visible from the outside, although I'm sure there are plenty of secret doors leading to hidden staircases, basements, attics, and personal cubby-spaces where only the poet can be made comfortable.

But the main feature of this collection is its windows that let in the light of illumination, the heat of passion, and the movement of language through its pages that will motivate poets to write, and readers to read. All with a bit of humor thrown in. What more can we expect from art or life?

Stephan Delbos is a writer living in Prague. His poetry, essays and translations have been published internationally. He is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). His play Chetty's Lullaby, about trumpet player Chet Baker, was produced in San Francisco in 2014. His co-translation of The Absolute Gravedigger, by Czech surrealist poet Vitezslav Nezval, was awarded the PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2015 and was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2016. Deaf Empire, his play about Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, was produced by the Prague Shakespeare Company in 2017. He is the author of the poetry chapbook In Memory of Fire (Cape Cod Poetry Review, 2017), and the poetry collection Small Talk (Literary Salon, 2019). A Founding Editor of the web journal B O D Y, he teaches at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague.