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Negativity of course is not absent from the poetry of Steve Light, however it remains that an affirmative breath, an optimism without naivety, a profound assent to what is, always frees him from the negativist current of our modern conditions. It is a question for him then of a combat step by step, day after day, poem by poem. It is this trait that from the very beginning I have recognized as profoundly american in the noblest sense of the word. And this trait, all the stronger given that from which he keeps himself, means that the
poetic DNA of Steve Light comes less from Poe, the most European of the great poets of the new world, than from Whitman, Pound, Carlos Williams, and Ginsberg. These are the poets who have had able recourse, for reasons as intricate and extensive to analyze as easy to understand by simple synoptic indication, to a lyrical positivity that is forbidden all the great names of the modern European tradition. For me, personally, it is always this breath of fresh air, this right to innocence, obtained of course through difficult struggle that I have always appreciated in these immense transatlantic poets. I find a similar “oxygenation” in the poems of Steve Light.
And thereby another distinct and striking trait of his poems, something disconcerting even: the spirit of the great European poets is omnipresent and is doubled by a concern no less unrelenting with the apocalyptical political events of the 20th Century, Auschwitz first of all. And yet this does not curtail or diminish what is the central, and geneologically and philosophically very powerful sentiment of Steve Light: the human being, from her earliest paleolithic beginnings is the one who has invented happiness. I must in order to complete this brief presentation, accentuate another singularity of the poetic of Steve Light: it is what one could call, and in very close relationship with that about which I have previously spoken, a kind of happy postmodernity. And this is precisely and nothing other than the very real historical thought which is his and which operates as the differed echo, the broken american mirror, once again, of Holderlin or of Lacoue-Labarthe. As all poetry dignified of the name, the poetry of Steve Light is a poetry of intensity; a poetry which in giving itself to thinking, seeing, and hearing, arrives finally at upsetting and rending the soul to the point of tears.
—Mehdi Belhaj Kacem is a philosopher and writer. Recent works include: L’esprit du nihilisme: une ontologique de l’histoire; inesthétique et mimèsis: Badiou, Lacoue-Labarthe et la question de l’art; and Algèbra de la tragédie. In addition, he is the translator of Dante’s La vita nuova and Petrarch’s Trionfi—
Happiness emerges on a sudden; it does not conform to expectations, is no epistemic construction, and is not divorced from melancholy. Such is the import of these jazzy and literate poems from the heart.
—Howard Eiland is a critic and translator. He is the co-author of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life and the translator of Benjamin’s Arcades Project and The Origin of the German Trauerspiel
Steve Light’s The Emergence of Happiness reveals at every moment an aspect of the author’s thematic places motivating his writing. One could say that his book functions as a memory device populated by persons and instances plotting “the arc/of every life”: in these pages a beloved painter, evocative sceneries, tragic historical moments, and familial loss, etc. which the poet weds to existential concerns.
Throughout the collection, the pervasive use of two titular indications— “Aubade” and “Nocturne”—installs a subtle translation of the pulse beating through any creative endeavor. For humans the exchange between the hopeful radiance of dawn (aube in French) and the haunting arrival of nocturnal gloom reminds us of the foundation of both the perceptions of our senses and of our intellectual and emotional grasp of the world. Such a foundational phenomenology, also inhabits the lyrical performances of the troubadour who developed the genre known as “aubade,” the lover’s ambiguous praise to dawn which both deprives him of physical intercourse and ushers in the essential emergence of happiness for all living creatures, and especially plants. The most famous of these musical texts devoted to the ambiguities of early light is “Can vei la lauzeta mover” (“When I see the lark rise up”) by Bernard de Ventadour (1115-1195), who masterfully cultivates the multimedia strictures of the canso. Spurned by an aristocratic lady, Bernard transposes his sorrow into a vibrant appeal to a bold meadow lark (Alauda arvensis ) shooting up towards the sun, singing its heart out at the apex of its flight and, unable to reach higher, plummeting towards the earth as a sort of hubristic Icarus. For this reader, Steve Light adopts the lark’s concerns while tacitly gesturing towards the fountainhead of the Western lyrical traditions. But his efforts remain tinged by the despair, as indicated earlier, in the book’s employment of the contradictory musical expressions which yet and throughout are folded into the singular unity of an extremely edifying and moving poetry filled with compelling and melodious insights.
In this brief review, it is of course impossible to capture all the intricacies of a collection which twists and turns around the light/darkness dichotomy. Nevertheless, certain passages refuse the alluring call of melancholy and rise towards joy as the lark’s perilous ascension, embodiment of a triumphant hymn. These verses promulgate a mélange of abstractions—destiny, life, generosity—with sensible (in both senses of the term) physical realities: the covenant of the rainbow, accelerating motion, the horizon. These key instances, rhythmically pronounced and metaphorically enhanced, arrive at a fatigue which yet cannot efface the required moral beneficience of our actions and thoughts. The poet’s craft lies here at the heart of expression. The arbitrary nature of language becomes motivated by the musical arrangement of every syllable and figure of speech. This collection convinces the diligent reader that he or she has not aimlessly spent energy, and that a type of happiness has been reached in the process of wandering through Steve Light’s remarkable compositional skills.
—Marc-Andre Wiesman is Professor Emeritus of French Literature and the Humanities at Skidmore College
Steve Light is a poet and philosopher. His most recent book is Against Middle Passages (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2017). He is the translator of Jean Grenier’s Islands: Lyrical Essays (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005) and his writings and translations have appeared in many different countries.