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Steve Light is one of the truly great poets of our time. We would be hard pressed to find a voice in which the dialogue with philosophy that is always latent in poetry (perhaps its very essence even) to be so succinctly and essentially crafted. But an interlocution fashioned precisely as poetry, and that at its fullest distillation—as the inner expression of the essential itself.
One could describe philosophy as a construction site; an immense building project shaping the structure where, instead of wood and hide and stone, we make a shelter out of the basic, but never simple, existential tragedies and felicities (or even plenitudes) of sense, of sensitivities, and finally, at the center of all this, our finitude. Following that imaging, we could comprehend and experience Steve Light’s poems—which are succinct, short, deploying a precision of words; enunciations in which the association of utterance to meaning crosses the longest of distances yet is the most direct—as the refined and delicate edifice and interior of the essential that poetry always longs for, once the encumbering scaffolding of philosophy has been removed.
Poetry, perhaps, is consanguine with language itself, its gateway and origin even. It is where language comes closest to itself. But it is always, just beyond language’s grasp. For it is in the interstices of the word, the spaces that philosophy never succeeds in completely filling, that great poetry takes voice. And poetry, when it truly rises to itself, knows this, as will the reader, for that is precisely what it will have said. And that mastery of the word which we find in the poetry of Steve Light, where the building blocks of the complex are fashioned finally into a resonating and deeply felt immediacy at once simple and not so simple, is the hardest work of all.
It was Adorno who said that one must cross the frozen wasteland of the abstract to reach the concrete. Steve Light has traversed those ice fields, has indeed seen the frozen shores and glaciated peaks that only such a peregrination could endow and allow in order to reach what really matters, that which in a sense all of us know but ever and always forget, or even which life paradoxically makes us forget Saint-Just in the youthful prescience of an emerging world’s dawn (as it could have been) noted that happiness was a new idea in the world. Steve Light in these duskier, wearier times brings us back, but wiser, wider, and more profound, to this core understanding, to this core of the real and the existential, to this core of the most important, so that it may emerge anew and resound in the deepest portions of ourselves.
—Joseph Gorlitzan, poet, critic, and translator
These gems illuminate the pathway out of the abyss. The intellectual rigor, the lyricism, the depth of feeling of these poems is an extraordinary achievement. This book is the pulse of life in an increasingly moribund culture.
—Alan Silver, painter
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 in him, 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 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: 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 poetry 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. 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; Inesthetique et mi-mesis: Badiou, Lacoue-Labarthe et la question de l’art; and Algebra de la tragedie. 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.