Main Street Rag
Reviewer: George Drew
Stefan Lovasik’s Absolution is ostensibly about war, in his case the Vietnam War, its social and cultural ramifications and the resultant war within, its playing out over time emotionally and spiritually. And about war it is, especially in the first and second of its three sections: “Confession” and “Absolution.” Readers no doubt will respond viscerally to the imagery, as well they should:
when I got to him
jb was trying to put
his tongue back
through the blown out flesh
that used to be his cheek…
That imagery, from “Get Ready,” the second poem of the first section, is, for this reader, the most haunting. It says it all, conjuring in its opening five lines the horror and, yes, the physical repulsiveness of war. Its in-your-face description is one of the most effective poetic weapons in Lovasik’s arsenal. But it’s not the only one.
Certainly surviving the awful effects of war and the search for personal absolution are major themes. But an equally powerful leitmotif is established by the last line of the opening poem: “I fight to recognize myself.” There it is—identity. This theme occurs in poem after poem, particularly in the third and longest section, “Returning to the World,” a common phrase among Vietnam veterans. How could it be otherwise? As we ought to know by now, war shatters not only bodies but psyches. It destroys identity, leaving survivors “far / from who we / think we are.” In “A Little Shade” the speaker says,
So, yes, I want a little shade
to escape into like a cave,
like the dark and opiate jungle rain.
And in “Veteran’s Day,” the speaker, contemplating a war monument near a bridge, says of himself and “the boys squeezing the triggers” that they
…stand in the gleam
of this hard stone
knowing our memories
are exit wounds
Even their memories, their personal histories, are shattered, fragmenting like a grenade. There is nothing left of those, nor of them. They are the walking dead. All the speaker can do is “invent scenarios and places / to comfort the impossible / spaces I’ve become.”
Lovasik’s war images are precise, revoltingly so, and function as both repellent and siren. That dichotomy is, after all, unflinching truth. We are repulsed, we are intoxicated. From his ironic title and title poem, Absolution (he knows there is none, not for him and the others wounded in conscience and haunted by memories), and throughout the poems to the last line of the last poem, Lovasik presents that truth in his devastating use of image and metaphor.
The quest for identity, perhaps a regained sense of self or the forging of a new self, is inextricably bound to the horror the imagery presents. In fact, that quest continues after the last line of the last poem. Even in a life not ravaged by war, this is true, but in the life of a human being scarred forever by war, either self is continually elusive, like the Viet Cong in their jungles and tunnels. This, too, is utter truth. And Lovasik’s recognition of it, his “confession,” is the nobility inherent in the sheer honesty of his self-awareness. In “Regrets,” the speaker asserts that he will “watch whatever life / you call this play out.” Then, in a line set off as the final line of the poem, he says: “I know it will be truly bad theater.” The theater is the quest for identity, the speaker the starring actor, alone on stage. Welcome to a ground that most decidedly is not heavenly.
How effectively realistic Lovasik’s use of imagery is in the broad context of war poetry I leave to others, preferably those critics and writers who also fought in the war. It would be presumptuous of this reader, a non-combatant in any war, to make that judgment. What can be said is that Absolution reduces one to equal parts terror, anger, shame, guilt and, paradoxically, hope. Or at least the possibility of hope, even if chimerical.
Hope, however, is elusive. In “King of the Dirt,” a poem about a boyhood bully, Lovasik writes that, looking into the bully’s “small colorless eyes,” what he saw was “The same stupidity, / the same eyes, / the hatred, / the long / heavy / handed / idiocy / and / shadow / of the / centuries.” Faced with such black truth, hope seems indeed a mere mirage. But there is at least the momentary reprieve of humor, which in this book is rare, which in turn makes its few appearances all the more resonant.
Humor doesn’t save, but it does leaven the quicksand-sucking dough of fear and anger, shame and guilt, of black nights when the soul booby-traps itself with nightmarish memories; when the very imagery the poems inculcate turn on the bearer of those memories. While in poems like “To the Arrogant” and “Letter to Jeff Koons” the humor is driven by Lovasik’s anger at hypocrisy and cultural shallowness, “Hard for Jesus” and “Dick,” though sharing the same moral outrage and satirical deftness, differ in effect: both poems are simply hilarious. In a book as intentionally and necessarily dark as Absolution, poems that center on sex and religion and on a certain male body part are, despite their serious context, comic relief at its most outrageous. As in all the poems, the language in these is direct, even coarse, but in Lovasik’s poetic hands pure poetry. Take this from “Hard for Jesus”:
It was glorious,
I saw the angels
with my hard on for Jesus
and screamed, “Oh, my God! Oh, Christ! Oh, my God!”
and she was yelling, “YES, YES, YES!”
And this from “Dick”:
me and my ithyphallic one-eyed monster
that just hangs out like a body in a hammock
and doesn’t miss a trick /
Momentarily, then, humor can help lift a black inner fog, ease pain. Laughter survives, as does tenderness, evidenced by “Grace,” a poem dedicated to and about Lovasik’s wife. But war doesn’t just wound, isn’t a clean through-and-through. It shreds, it rips flesh and spirit. It destroys whatever sense of self one has. It shatters identity. All one can do is “wait with open hands / for what happens next.”
That, and pray to whatever god is left. In the closing poem, “The Prayer,” Lovasik says of “those left behind” that all he can do is
hold them until
we remember nothing but light
and die into a grace
as the prayer that can never be denied
Part of that grace, for him and us, is the transformation of horror, residual darkness, and pain into the healing balm of the art he has wrought. That in itself registers a modicum of absolution, even if it’s purely literary. We thank him for that and wish him all the grace there is.