Reviewed by Richard Holinger
Virtually every poem in Christina Pugh’s new book, Stardust Media, involves a blending of opposites, two diametrically opposed concepts or images that resolve their differences to form a new and more revelatory understanding of both. This deft sleight-of-hand maneuver provides a challenging but rewarding experience, each poem not so much “the drama of redemption,” as George Herbert would have it, but the drama of renewal. The theme most common—the tension between technology and art—speaks to our twenty-first century with a clarion and reassuring voice.
“In the Distant Twenty-first Century” begins with a memory of reading W.S. Merwin’s “To Luck” that “we’d framed inside our brick faux-fireplace, / when something drew my eye away from his lines / and into the glass that glazed the words within their frame.” These first lines infuse the natural with the unnatural, the artful with the artifice. Merwin’s poem is an apostrophe to Luck, to whom we’re stupidly subservient:
… oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
Pugh suggests the glass frame might threaten the loss of the poem’s metaphysical verve. However, the reflection becomes a new source of art, “jewelling my periphery…a modest altar retrofit with sapphire and brass.” The reflection turns out to be Pugh’s open, lit laptop “sequined with Word files and folders / gleaming Byzantine”— technology has been alchemized into a beautiful objet d’art, nearly sacred, beheld as a priest might an altar, or a jeweler a gem.
The poet’s love-hate relationship with her laptop becomes fully realized in “Off the Web,” as too much time on the internet leads to feeling “my dress / gather headwinds and swirl, then lift like / Marilyn’s over a grate,” or shrouded in Lesley Dill’s “lettered dresses printed / up with stanzas from Dickinson’s fascicles.” Another sequence imagines her laptop’s light dooming her to a life of darkness. This motif of light—the fear of losing it, or not having enough—dominates the verse; even a TV or a window’s brightness are forbidden fruit. The poem concludes with the encouragement “to appreciate the things you still have … / how delectable is sunlight on your face / in early March?”
And yet, conversely, on the very next page, “I’m Taking a Vacation on My Desktop” heralds a laptop’s pixilated images of Pfeiffer Falls recreating memories of the speaker’s trip to Big Sur. Pugh compares the size of her small screen to Emily Dickinson’s “cherry table,” a contrast between the organic and metallic, between warm, soulful wood and cold, detached electronics. The final irony occurs when she hears Midwestern birds singing outside her window that “don’t sing the same as California birds,” suggesting even the sounds of nature may not measure up to the stored screened nostalgia of California dreamin’.
The virtual and the actual dance together throughout “A Benefit,” a poem prescient of COVID-19’s remote relationships: “It’s back, the virtual. Not that it ever / really went away.” The concept, analogous to “a rainbow in gasoline,” referring to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” suggests beauty within, even constructed from, earth’s elements: “Light pollution / took the actual stars—but gods / still glide across the skinniest of / human forms: Poseidon glows within the actress Rooney Mara.” Constellations may not be visible from cities, but their power shines through personalities, shines on the silver screen; technology bears witness to the universal, the cosmic, the supernatural.
Finally, a reference to stars raises the question of the book’s title, the titular poem beginning with the epigram, “You know all the transcendent sounds. It’s all sound all the way through” (Elizabeth Fraser of the Scottish band The Cocteau Twins). The poet ruminates on recall, whether a half-remembered image of the band’s album cover is better than the true image, impossible to conjure: “Maybe the historical rightness doesn’t matter. / Or maybe my mistaking is the beauty entire.” Pugh’s tension exists between what may be the better choice aesthetically and spiritually, what the mind remembers and imagines contrasted to the actual event or object. When the speaker comes across an article about the plane that vanished in East Asia a few years ago, she sees “a stone / arrow pulled from beneath the ocean floor. / My mind’s eye transformed it to the Venus’s hand, a triangular push of form interrupted.” This, then, is “stardust media,” the mystical mistaking and mis-making of the real, reshaping and reinventing the actual into, if one is lucky—to use Merwin’s term—the transcendent. The poem itself is stardust media, reporting not accurately, but rather transforming reality into a realm reachable only by art.
Richard Holinger’s work has received three Pushcart Prize nominations, and his essay, “Thread,” received a notable mention in The Best American Essays 2018. Not Everybody’s Nice won the 2012 Split Oak Flash Prose Chapbook Contest. His collection of newspaper columns, Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences, as well as his first book of poetry, North of Crivitz, are forthcoming this summer. Holinger’s fiction has appeared in Witness and the Iowa Review; his creative nonfiction and book reviews, in the Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Northwest Review; and his poetry, in Boulevard, Chelsea, and elsewhere. He lives in the Fox River Valley west of Chicago, and holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.