Stephen Petroff’s marvelously titled new collection of writings, Philosophosphorescence (Red Tea Books, 2021, 234 pp., paper), kicks off with a few pages of testimonials. Poet Gary Lawless, paying tribute to Petroff, offers this line from his friend: “When we are forced to leave this world, to take residence on other planets, we will want to take our favorite stories with us.” When that time comes, Lawless avers, he “will take Stephen’s.”
Excellent choice: This wide-ranging miscellany would make good company on a long trip—and would be the volume to have sitting on your crater-side table when you settle down on one of the moons of Jupiter.
“I am attempting,” Petroff writes in his introduction to Part I, “to construct with words a web to hold (and to hold forth) some of the things that are sacred to me.” It’s a web of words worthy of Anansi.
Petroff calls his sentences and paragraphs “verses” and believes that they all “add up to poetry.” He admits he thought of calling them prose poems but found the term “precious and twee.” Perhaps the label is a bit wishy-washy, but that said, his work shares characteristics, especially a kind of eloquent absurdity, with some of its finest practitioners. Kenneth Patchen and Russell Edson come to mind.
As does the French surrealist Max Jacob, another prose poem specialist. This Petroff vignette has a Jacobian ring: “The big stones, ankle-deep in the grass, he understood to be boats in a sea or the shadows of clouds spread across a mountainside.” Another fragment brought to mind a scene from a Buñuel film: “At their summer retreats, the royalty all, while decompressing, pretended to be dogs—yapping, yipping.”
Sometimes the poems read like dream transcripts; indeed, the line between vision and reality often seems porous—and that makes for some wonderful moments. “The wind snapped a branch from our elm and threw it into the street,” Petroff recounts, and then it gets interesting: “Once the branch had settled, it became a snake, and disappeared into a broken place in the pavement.”
Petroff can be lyric and romantic, as in this lovely account: “I’ve told this story before: she took away my headache by telling me the names of all the mosses she had seen in the mountains. Her voice and the sound of those names had the property of healing.” The poem leaps and we follow with a smile.
Brevity can be the soul of wit—and of wisdom. A few examples from Philosophosphorescence: “I tossed a python over a wall. There’s an accomplishment.” And: “Planets can be bound together by a child’s ideas.” And: “Gods don’t need to be / taught to play stringed instruments.” And: “Herons eat garter snakes because that’s what makes their legs so long.” And: “As the heavy trucks pass by outdoors, / the books creep slowly from the shelves.”
Petroff can be aspirational in a quirky way. “If I could be a sincere and guileless charlatan, I might heal each sorrower with a ladleful of cold water.” And here is a helpful suggestion: “When the kettle cries out, give it half-a-handful mismeasure of belladonna and salt, knowing that when you begin by cooking Flattery, this recipe will produce no more than insolence.”
Some of these pieces are laugh-out-loud. Here’s a favorite: “The idea that giraffes might be imported and put to work as scaffolds for house painters and window cleaners was the first indication that our leaders had got lead in their drinking water.” And then there’s this amusing fragment: “3.20 I dreamt I was trying to strangle Henry Kissinger; knocked the teacup off my night table.”
Petroff likes to play with logic, offering scenarios that might or might not make sense. “Not everything that is colorless is also invisible,” he notes, “or rain might be considered a genre of music. And thinking that it was music, we might not recognize the rain as wet.” We might not.
Some of the verses take the form of commentary. “The paintings in their homes are always landscapes of places not far distant, where anyone might prefer to be, but no one in the household has been.” So true! Other pieces seem diaristic, notes of activities. “At Liberty Tool, / he brought an axe with a broken handle, / and Hawthorne’s AMERICAN NOTEBOOK” reads one entry.
In many cases, a line or story might serve as a prompt to a larger narrative or train of thought—which, going back to an earlier point in this review, makes this book even more ideal for intergalactic travel. There you are between stars, and you come across these lines: “I guess I’m ready to meditate / on the dissolution of the universe.” Or this question: “What is the word for a woman who grew up / loving insects?”
Occasionally Petroff will offer a more extended riff on a subject, such as the poem “Our Stone Walls” in which he begs to differ with Robert Frost:
The rocks hold their balance,
almost never topple to the frozen/thawing
earth; those walls simply don’t need “mending,”
not in my experience. Certainly not every spring.
I found the more traditional poems, a group of which appears in parts II and III near the end of the book, less compelling—as if after the adventure and pleasures of Petroff’s short-form fables, aphorisms, apercus, and other delights, these longer narrative pieces felt somewhat commonplace. Petroff notes that several of them he presented at readings, which makes you wish for a recording. Whatever my take, don’t miss “One Specimen Night” or “During the Heatwave.”
Various figures from Petroff’s life make cameo appearances, most notably perhaps, the painter Charles Stanley, aka Carlo Pittore, the renowned artist out of Bowdoinham who helped found the Union of Maine Visual Artists. At one point the poet recalls, “Carlo would roar with laughter whenever I used the word, ‘posterity.’”
Another reminiscence concerns some students in Pittore’s art workshop laughingly noting how Petroff seemed to paint the same large green tree with one red branch every year. The “Red Branch” becomes something of a leitmotif in the book as the poet returns to it in different contexts. Here’s an appearance:
One cross I am forced to bear is that no one loves me,
because I am completely full of shit. There may be
something to this, but my advocacy of the Red Branch
is something else again: there is a genuine
compulsion located near some ordinary prompting
Reading Petroff (love the sound of that—so Russian and literary) led me to revisit a few writers I thought might align with his sensibility. First off, Blaise Pascal and his Pensées, those jottings by the great 17th-century philosopher and mathematician. Some of the Frenchman’s “thoughts” might have been written by our man in Maine. Here’s number 12:
Scaramouch, who only thinks of one thing.
The doctor, who speaks for a quarter of an hour after he has said everything, so full is he of the desire of talking.
Of course, Petroff is no apologist for Christianity as Pascal was, but that difference aside, his pensées at times resemble his predecessor’s. Indeed, what T. S. Eliot wrote about Pascal’s collection might be applied to Philosophosphorescence: “He who reads this book will observe at once its fragmentary nature; but only after some study will perceive that the fragmentariness lies in the expression more than in the thought.”
Another book pulled off the shelf for comparison proved quite different: The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham. Cunningham’s epigrams provoke admiration for their cleverness, wit, and rhymes, but they are more Martial or Richard Wilbur than Petroff. Here’s a sample:
After some years Bohemian came to this,
This Maenad with hair down and gaping kiss
Wild on the barren edge of under fifty.
She would finance his art if he were thrifty.
All this poking around to prove a point: Petroff’s writing is one of a kind. In some cases, such as the series of “Timbrels-vital,” he invents a poetic form consisting of two unrelated observations/images/statements that jamb and engage. A sample: “I came to love you the most in all the world. / Ours was the first planet in the galaxy to see the manufacture of dolls that cried.”
At times Petroff’s poetry aligns with some of his contemporaries. The following matter-of-fact yet surreal observation might have been written by John Yau: “The oddly dressed men and women came into town here as children, released from a subterranean prison, where their DNA had been tested for fiction content.”
These resemblances remind us that earlier in his life Petroff spent time in New York City, performing with Tuli Kupferberg in his Revolting Theater in the 1970s and taking part in the lively literary scene. This piece from “36 Zoom-Orphic Airs” might have been composed back in those crazy days:
13. Prayer: O God,
when You Come!
Do something illegal!
The book features an assortment of Petroff’s drawings. Some are incidental illustrations, such as several of a hockey player in various poses. Other, more substantial images, like Mechanical Bird, bring to mind some of Robert Shetterly’s phantastic compositions. Several Petroff paintings are reproduced at the end, including the marvelous Bern Porter drives the Chariot of the Sun showing the physicist and avant-garde poet doing just that.
At one point in Philosophosphorescence, Petroff poses the question, “What do I ask of Poetry?” One of his answers demonstrates how this poet practices what he professes: “I ask that [poetry] provide a sequence from the ‘Music of Human Intelligence’ that tells me how I may live out my days in accord with my heartsong.” Listen up.
Stephen Petroff’s Philosophosphorescence is available from Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick.
Image at top: Stephen Petroff, Phosphorescence, book cover.