top of page

poemoftheweek poem of the week


Stephen Cramer




The doors labor open to the heaped 
                              clamor of commute-conductor's 
                 drawl & static, the PA leaking

crackled locales &, below that, more urgently,


                 a metallic rasp & chafe-kneeling there,
                              a man on a make-shift contraption 
                 (ply-wood base, shopping cart wheels) pulls off 


the painstaking work of carting himself


across the gapped threshold. Swaddled 
                              in a blanket-someone's beat-up 
                  woolen blue-he wheels his bulk


on fisted knuckles to the pole's brief


                  mooring. That's when the blanket 
                              falls & what's left of his legs
                  pokes through like stout elbows.


By then there's no need


for pageantry, but when he reaches 
                              the car's middle (there's no one, 
                   now, who isn't watching) he begins, 


gently as his weather-worn voice will allow,


                   to sing. Nothing intricate or too 
                              creative, this unadorned loop 
                   of a song's just enough to contain 


the four recurring lyrics-I got


no legs. He lifts his eyebrows 
                              like a choirboy, distinctly 
                   proud, before repeating


the simple fact of it-I got no


                   legs. & as he sings, he rows himself 
                               forward like the song's scant exhalation, 
                   & not his blackened fingers, 


propelled him. Imagine the intricate


travelogue of those wheels-
                               stippled asphalt, cobble, curb 
                   & impossible staircase-the endless


caterwaul of friction a sort of kindred


                   music to him. Slick linoleum rumble 
                               as he threads through the aisle, 
                   clutches the handle, hazards 


the gap to the car in front.


We don't even need to watch 
                               to see how the blanket drops, 
                   the exertion of retrieval, the routine


culminating in four unreeled syllables


                   that let you forget any touch 
                               of affectation. Because, showbiz 
                   aside, he's answered fate not 


with complaint or lamentation,


but with song (& let's not pretend-oh yes, 
                               it's coming: there's something out there
                   with our names on it): & we all


need a song that says mercy. Song


                   that says O veiled & fathomless 
                                city, strangely bejeweled by such 
                   sundered & dazzling creatures, 


hear our simple pleas because


there's a legless man in the next 
                                car & I can't stop feeling
                    how our bodies speed


through the space his just held,


                    how he's the part of us 
                                 that's gotten there first.




Gleaned from gutter-mouths, we knew their muscle 
before meanings, the monosyllables raised to hallowed 
refrains on our tongues. We glorified it, the older world 
of vice & impiety. So just as we both wanted to be 
the fugitive in cops & robbers, my best friend & I 
hid downstairs & scrawled out a barrage of vulgarities-
the heavy-hitters, of course, but then the half-dozen 
declensions of ass, 
the lumped phrases 
of defecation, the whole 
shameful lexicon of 
anatomy. Then, those white 
sheets defiled (microcosm 
of our own soiled tabula rasa), we crumpled them
&-like shoving a bottled note to the sea's blind tug-
threw them to the ditch at wood's edge. It was the same 
fertile gully where I'd picked, years before, palmfuls 
of fruit &-the words monk's hood, nightshade 
still a decade off-swallowed them. I hardly even 
remember being sped to the ER to have my stomach 
pumped. Of course 
our ink-spangled pages 
never went anywhere, 
though I wish I could 
hold one now, dim 
record of childhood's 
vast testing ground-
the necessary absurdity 
& litter of it all. 
Instead, those lost notes 
were draped with stray 
leaves, coiled with briars 
which could never quite 
keep from reach
those sweet-looking 
berries we were told 
not to touch,
but had to. & did.

               -from Tongue & Groove

BIO: Stephen Cramer’s first book of poems, Shiva’s Drum, was selected by Grace Schulman for the National Poetry Series and published in 2004. His second, Tongue & Groove, was published by University of Illinois Press in the fall of 2007. His work has appeared in journals such as American Poetry Review, African American Review, Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Green Mountains Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Southwest Review. He’s currently polishing up a third collection of poetry with help from a grant from The Vermont Arts Council. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Vermont and lives with his wife and daughter in Burlington

Born & Born Again, a review of Stephen Cramer's Tongue and Groove by Hansa Bergwall

Imagine a man in the subway who removes his shirt and starts picking a scab. Would you look the other way? I would, but I think Stephen Cramer would watch and find an uncomfortable beauty about the scene. He writes with uncommon courage. His new book Tongue & Groove has poems of the sublime and the ugly. This collection builds on his first book, Shiva’s Drum, but Cramer owns his style more boldly. This book distinguishes itself with an earnest voice. He approaches even unorthodox subjects with the mindfulness of a Buddhist monk.

Maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books, but a lot of poets writing today favor the ironic or cynical over the earnest. Few have the courage to write a love poem without hurt, or irony. Cramer’s “Glaciers” is a forthright celebration of love. He sets the scene as a hike over a landscape and comments on how an ice age has changed that landscape. With this long view of time and shape he cuts to a heady and thrilling sentiment of love:

before we begin, you must know:

                        I’m awkward with a hammer

            & my right angles slope


even with a T-square, the level’s lime-

                        green bubbles forever misaligned.

            love, only now I’m learning


the ways of lasting construction:

                        dovetail, double tongue & groove,

            & you don’t need a hammer


to build what we’re building.

                        What steers us, unseen

            but solid as bedrock?


Let’s make our move

                        now. In my chest I can feel

            a billion trembling wings


veering at once.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up the first time I read this poem. He constructs his tingling moments out of a little wildness, philosophy, and narrative. He can be earnest because he is never cliché.

Cramer also chooses the subject of the outcast as his impetus to poetic realization in several poems. Even though these outcasts appear in public, his attentive description of them can feel voyeuristic. Doesn’t he know the polite thing to do is look away and ignore? His insistence that the reader look with him made me uncomfortable at times, but I was always grateful afterward. In “Strings” he chooses a crazy and dirty man who has a ukulele with no strings which he strums until his fingers bleed. Cramer uses this figure to reflect on Buddhist ideas of reincarnation:


…because on these streets


don’t even think about looking

for a next life—Sweetheart,

you ain’t gonna get it—


& all you can do is prepare

to be astonished out of your body

& into another’s, to feel your way


into something as remote

as the grayed & toiling flesh

still grinding away at that scored


& barren wood—phantom

strings & phantom resonance.

This rebirth through empathy re-imagines reincarnation and the Buddhist worldview. It makes the idea of becoming other more accessible to a skeptical 21st century mind while honoring the idea of the sacred. The music of the language, the realist world and the imaginative philosophy come together elegantly. Poetry may not be a vehicle for rhetorical argument, but it can reveal an image of truth. This poem reveals a beautiful way of imagining empathy.

A current political world can be tricky to write about. Maybe that is because the liberal and conservative talking points frame our thinking so well that it is difficult to write a fresh view. When Cramer takes up the challenge in “Fuel,” he mostly succeeds. In the poem, he imagines a bus, with an eagle on its side that runs on blood, types O, A and B. The bus runs on newscasters, media, and 2 am knocks on the door. He makes our nation feel like a late-night rerun of the film “Speed,” where Keanu Reeves cannot slow the bus below 50 mph or it will explode. He ends it with a call to slow down:

… 12 ton bus

with an eagle on its side

& this isn’t my stop

but I’m getting off

because I don’t know about you

but I can walk from here.

Any political poem runs the risk of alienating a reader who disagrees. Yet as a caricature this poem reveals some truth by distorting it. The poem succeeds because the image rings true, even if the framing and proscription are debatable.

Cramer crafts his poetry well and a jazz sensibility goes from soft to brassy. He seems to intuitively arrive at insights through his work and he shares them. These insights always come from paying very close attention to the lover, to the homeless man, to war. He earns each big thought. His tone is earnest and appealing. I recommend reading this book.

bottom of page