Touch to Affliction by Nathalie Stephens. Coach House Books, $16.95.
Reviewed by Meg Hurtado
With Touch to Affliction, Nathalie Stephens explores the poet-as-trespasser. Her speaker wanders through a world to which she clearly feels entitled (she intimately references the train stations and street corners of this poetically consecrated world). However, her cutting lyricism soon reveals that this city exudes not only loss but rapidly approaching danger, and her role within it is more than simply elegiac. Touch to Affliction strives to save what must endure, and Stephens’s speaker is responsible for this task. The poet plays both the elegant bard and the invincible journalist, leading the reader through a “city” that has fallen into the hands of its fate. Her double identity extends to a sense of double vision, which she manipulates gracefully through her awareness of language as song and system. Stephens conjures vibrant images and clarion scenes, but their beauty never compromises their full dimensionality. She has been assigned to search for both the inner and outer story of this “city.”
Her writing itself possesses the texture of light, revealing both what can and what cannot be seen. In one simple example, she says of “a dog lying heavily against a wall” that “It is or is not cold.” In many of the poems, Stephens dramatically expands this sense of double-sight. The fruits of this fearless expansion are several moments in which we know that the speaker is both living and dead. Such moments do not produce horror, nor any sense of a tortured, “ghostly” speaker. Rather, they comprise an achievement in clairvoyance just as serene as it is extraordinary.
The speaker of Touch to Affliction belongs to a world of transparency, a devastated city in which usual boundaries of culture, language, and survival have been removed. Even so, her awareness of such boundaries penetrates the text--constant references to the nature of language at first appear academic, but prove to be anything else. All of her linguistic theatrics eventually assert themselves as essential. Even the tiniest inversions of diction or unconventional, abstract syntax earn their place in this city.
The city could be Paris, to which she makes multiple references, but it could just as easily be 1945-Berlin, or 1917-Moscow, or any other city in time of strife. Fortunately, Stephens possesses such a miraculous intuition for and control of language that this breadth of subject does not damage her visceral nearness to the world of her creation. Though Stephens definitely conjures a visually and intellectually surreal landscape for this “city,” it is a surreality with which she is familiar. Such intimacy with the universal cannot help but impress and fascinate the reader, especially since she graphically describes the emergence of “the city” from her own thigh.
This image resurfaces many times in Touch to Affliction, as do several others, but the thoughts behind them remain ever-original and breathtaking. She identifies her city not only with all cities, but with all individuals. Furthermore, every individual is also a war, a tragedy. She asks, “What part of you is city? What part of you is famine?”
Stephens gives her speaker no immunity against this human-as-war identity. The speaker describes herself in blatantly geographical terms: “You identify me as a contested surface. A stripped margin of land.” Obviously, this gives rise to all kinds of existential questions, the answer to each of which is “yes.” Stephens’s ability to create double-realities seems unlimited--she has created a narrator both omniscient and completely subjective. This assessment also applies to the text itself. The reader may easily traverse half of Touch to Affliction before he or she notices its basic form. Stephens does not compromise between prose and poetry, but exploits language so well that her poems embody and transcend both mediums, just as “the city” must embody and transcend disaster and individuality.
With her view of every individual, including the speaker, as a war zone, Stephens appears “confessional” on many levels. Such a comfortable category feels long-lost and perhaps welcome to the reader, but Stephens boldly and bluntly refuses it, just as it seems to be most supported: “Not confessional. Evidence, rather, of the unspeakable. That thing toward which we move and we are an affront to the language we use to name it.”
She allows us no easy roads, but if one had to “bend [Stephens] into language,” one could call her a tragic poet, in the word’s truest sense--not only does she possess power over tragedy, but inimitable kinship with it. This is the “terrible beauty” of Yeats and the purity of contemporary European writers like Tomaz Salamun, sung by an earth-mother of humility and strength. Though Touch to Affliction waltzes with the tides of violence, Nathalie Stephens writes without fear or compromise, “brazen and stumbling.” Touch to Affliction is a clean, stone Madonna, buckled and rife with violence and the possibility of exultation.