In a juster world, Paul Stephenson would already be recognised as one of the best contemporary poets around.
If his previous two pamphlets demonstrated his multifaceted control of tone, structure and theme (Those People) as well as a knack for unsettling the reader to great empathetic effect (The Days that Followed Paris), his third pamphlet, Selfie with Waterlilies (Paper Swans Press, 2017), shows an emotional honesty that goes far beyond the mere truth.
In Selfie with Waterlilies, Stephenson’s approach tends to be slightly more direct than in his previous pamphlet, yet even within this context Stephenson employs a variety of techniques and registers, veering from the stream of “My Father’s Food”…
“…You never cooked not true I saw the waving of what a frying
pan in your hand a black racket your mum-out dinner racket…”
…to the pared-back tone and short lines of “The Rub”:
“…My muscular father,
my thin layer father,
my recommended father.
My wool fat father,
my liquid father,
my expiry father.”
Stephenson has proven, again and again, that he’s capable of experiments, fireworks and games, all yoked to his poems' aims, but the pieces where he chooses simplicity somehow seem lent consequent, additional strength. A personal favourite from this pamphlet is “Autoroutes”:
“…He thinks I’m asleep but I’m not. I am watching him
in our widescreen windscreen cinema, watching him
cruising past volcanic regions, legions of vineyards.
I am here, watching him going, keeping us going,
his foot down, silent, on the motorways of France.”
Stephenson’s linguistic touch is hugely deft here. First of all, there’s the clear internal music of “widescreen windscreen” and “regions, legions”, all alongside the repetition of "watching" and "going". This repetition and music work together to replicate, reflect and accentuate the rolling noise of the wheels and engine. And there's his shift from a contracted verb (“I’m”) to the sudden reportage (“I am”) of the full form, which is pivotal to the speaker’s role as a witness. This role lasts until the core of the poem arrives in its penultimate line: “I” is followed by “him” and then reaches “us”. Syntactic and grammatical awareness are enacted to poetic effect in the delicate capturing of a moment of intimacy.
I could list umpteen further examples of excellent poems from this top-notch pamphlet, but blog reviews are inevitably limited in length. In summary, if anyone deserves a full collection with a major publisher, it’s Paul Stephenson. I hope and expect Selfie with Waterlilies will help him on his way.