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The Gross and Fine Geography by Stephen Bett
reviewed by Antonio D'Alfonso

The Gross and Fine Geography: New & Selected Poems
Stephen Bett
Salmon Poetry


The Gross and Fine Geography presents a selection of Stephen Bett’s poetry published between 1983 and 2014. Selecting poems from the entire output entails invariably choosing what a poet considers perhaps not his best, but certainly what he believes to be significant for the narrative told by his new chronology. Selected Poems is a camouflaged memoir, and Stephen Bett’s chronicle begins with “How true it is that we need to be /close to the brink of language when / we speak now” and ends with “Though we are in- /credibly small / the path just / got shorter / by two breaths.”

I do like this type of writing, with its outcome of impropriety: the stumbling, reversals, jesting, equivocality, the wrong beat in the wrong place, the offbeat. As long as the image is diaphanous and the music upright, verbal grandiosity is never needed. The fissure attracts the curious more than the polished stone.

Stephen Bett will here and there reveal his literary idols and dislikes, but he is most elegant when his speech is tactful and civil. His wager against all odds wins him the big lottery, for in the end his intimate intentions as a writer are fulfilled.

From the sidewalk of matter (language) Bett journeys the way to the Divine, and what is divined is immateriality, that which comes betwixt breath and breath. Simply put, Bett is one heaven of a love poet. And a great writer of aphorisms. Sure, the words might be graphically unfamiliar and the verse in the shape of DNA strands. At times, stanzas read like disparate fragments and look like stand-alone blocks of images.

The reader should not be sidetracked by the jazzed voice or torn terms. “I know it’s you I want to breathe.” Bett’s poems are about love, the love of woman, the love of justice, the love of music, poetry, and art. He lifts the sidewalk up to the brink on a platform where few care to stand. He vacillates on the brink of (non)space where “Clear vision... moves in-ward.” When Stephen Bett enters the “town called love” he can believe in what he had not believed in.

There is something special, particularly moving, about the narrative that these Selected Poems bring to the reader. In, beneath, and above each single word and space, Stephen Bett recalls the story of his experiences; his poems are diary entries, reworked transience. He sings, he screams, he doubts, he cries, he tears everything apart, and then glues the world back together, one piece at a time.

From “too many maybes” we venture to something where “it’s like the world turns in the sky.” Matter mutates into Stephen Bett’s jive.

Antonio D’Alfonso is a Canadian writer, editor, publisher, and filmmaker, and was also the founder of Guernica Editions.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 22.