(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Joel Sloman’s Stops is a difficult but often amusing book of poems. Sloman is a postmodernist poet who consciously avoids the usual coherent and rational structures of earlier poetry. In the book’s preface, Denise Levertov claims that in his postmodernist method, “Sloman neither jumps nor falls over that brink: the means by which he stretches our expectations of language and continually surprises us are not erosions of grammar and syntax, but swifter adjacencies than we are used to, even after decades of familiarity with the dictum, one perception must lead immediately to another perception.’” The connections and relationships of lines or parts of poems, therefore, can seem arbitrary, but Sloman is challenging and goes beyond the reader’s usual sense of coherence. He provides a defense and description of his method in the poem (like most, titled by its first line) “While an ugly green house in a pale light.” The speaker poses the question: “Is it an affective disorder to be unable to comprehend any/ but logical steps?” His concept of meaning is that it “spreads from each thing like a potion/ in wine.”

The reader must be prepared for swift juxtapositions and leaps from one image to another to get any pleasure out of these poems. There is, however, another clue to Sloman’s method: He claims that the personifications in the book “become performers in my own dramas put on by my own touring opera company.” He personifies clouds, trees, and houses in nearly every poem in the book. Sloman claims that they are “neighborhood players in a spiritual realm that reverberates with persistent moral and other philosophical dilemmas. . . .” This may be making too large a claim for these playful poems, but the use of repeated images that take on human characteristics is central to Sloman’s poetics.

The poems are arranged into three groups. “It rains on elms’ tall pillars” is a good introduction to Sloman’s method. There are the familiar trees that introduce the poem, and there is a reversed perspective: “The baby’s garden dwarfs its house. . . .” It is a child’s world with its playfulness and freedom. It is “Nursery world” in which all are commanded to “Yield.” One of the important themes in the book is freedom from institutions or social restraints; the natural or child’s world is consistently juxtaposed to forces that would limit that freedom.

“It’s all having an impact on me” presents an oppressive monochrome world that is “proud to be obliterating” the joy of “broadcasted laughter.” As they often do in these poems, images of darkness oppose the world of freedom and pleasure; in this poem, it is “Espresso warps” and “Dark nostrils.” The conclusion is mocking as the “tug on her arm” is “merely her headphone cord” that provokes “an elegantly superior expression.” Presumably, the mechanical image calls forth this “superior expression,” but it is not very clear. Sloman’s logic of contrasting images of variety to monochromatic ones, mechanical to natural ones, is clear, but the resolution of this and other poems is not.

“Am I closer to thee, dotted world?” describes a computerized world made of “pixel” and “chip.” The speaker throws himself “out of bed with a martial arts grunt.” He is, presumably, preparing himself for the encounter with the “dotted world” that is curiously addressed in archaic language as “thee.” That world of “black shapes” sails from “port to port” in an amusing pun. The resolving line of the poem, however, is uncertain. “They are walking in wind and companionship.” Who are “they?” Is it the speaker and this world of “black shapes?” Is he now “closer” to that world? Or does the world of pixels walk in companionship with its own elements? That seems to be the most likely interpretation, but there is no certainty of meaning in these poems.

“Dirty windows dull the known brightness” uses the familiar dark and light imagery. The dark seems about to envelop the world as “the negative inside asserts itself”; however, the “sameness” is “a limited sameness.” Sameness takes on negative aspects in the poems and is consistently set against variety and multiplicity. Positive images of smiles and flowers are then evoked. The last stanza brings another figure into the poem: “In our love display/ we are vulnerable. . . .” The beloved is not identified but shares the values of the speaker. Their love is opposed to the monochromatic world of darkness and dirt. Furthermore, they cannot be controlled by “rulers”; “We need wiggle room.” The concept of needing freedom and space is clear, and “wiggle room” captures the idiosyncratic and childlike desire found in this and many other poems.

“Zurbaran” is one of the few titled poems, and it describes a still life by...

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