Book Review: “Can’t Sleep: poems, 1987-2007”, by Steve N. Isaak

It’s not easy to crit poetry.  Especially when it is the work of a friend.

In reading Steve Isaak’s new first book, my immediate thought was:  “You’ve waited 20 years before publishing this?  And Why?”

Twenty years in the wait, but I have to say  this is the best book of poetry I have read in years.

Many of us are uncomfortable in critting poetry: as we read, we try to ‘fit in’ the poet’s world.  We try to understand the rhythm and bones of their particular poetic expression, but realize poetry is such a subjective issue, we wonder if we can really understand the pulse coursing through a collection of poems.

I hold poetry has the power to make those links, to make that resonance in readers and to expand universes, to enlarge our own lives through the  shaped worlds of another poet.

Steve Isaak has written a book of poetry that has this particular power, that has so much going for it, it’s almost impossible to put down.  The richness of the imagery is cinematic, but loses nothing to emotional depth.  Steve’s power of observation and construction  in these poems is masterful.  They sing of a profound and original intelligence, and are not  easy or a casual read at all.  He takes a known poetic language and stands it on it’s head.  These poems….all 94 of them!!, demand attention, concentration, an openness to this particular ride and they create an introspection as an afterburn.

Steve twists the English language into something that carries his message well.  Most poets do this to some extent, bending words, meanings, fending to the left and going right, etc., but Steve does it and never loses our interest or us, maybe befuddling but enriching this particular stew poem he is stirring.

This is 20 years of work, and I would have liked to see some dates on the poems, just out of curiosity.  But that is just me. It’s not necessary, and there is such a compilation of  sentiments, memories, events ….he’s made poetry, and strong poetry out of very personal incidents but they transcend the particularly personal-of -Steve…and have a universality about them.  This, in my estimation…is that all-important resonance that so much poetry lacks.  I can’t say I understand all of these references, but that doesn’t matter.  There are so many poems to satisfy at a very deep level that it’s quite a cornucopia of delights.

Steve writes dimensionally. That’s the only way I can describe his poetry.  I kept thinking of 3-dim. something.  There’s the surface, what the words are saying…there’s the emotional middle, where Steve writes from the gut and isn’t ashamed to declaim it….and then that third level where the poem reveals itself, launches off, is given shape and form in our own understanding.  That resonance thing, again.  This is that Aha! moment where we recognize that web of connectivity between creations, between efforts.

Every poet has their favorite form of poetry.  Steve has 4 cinquains, 2 haikus, and 1 tanka and 2 haibun.  The rest are freeverse….85 by my count.  His two haiku are  exquisite.


Seasons no matter:

water links different stones,

placid, accepting.

And this:

October rain

Autumn drops tremble

leaves but don’t fall –us, wet or

not, balanced, held.

There are so many poems in this book that rise to a haunting level, one can feel quite overwhelmed in reading. “ Charnel”, a freeverse, made me wince.  It’s rock-bed reality that comes at you like a nightmare.  At least I hope it’s a nightmare.

I admit I have to go back to this book to reread it.  It is like falling down a rabbit hole:  There are so many layers to these poems, and so many poems, that this becomes a committed exercise.  But it’s so worth it.  The mosaic of these poems is complete and satisfying but they don’t come easy.

Buy this book and settle in for at least a weekend of reading.  Steve has written 94 poems, some of great, luminous beauty.  This book is a startling and exhilarating example of what poetry can be.  You might be lost in one or two of them….but that’s because you blinked.

Can’t Sleep: poems, 1987-2007, Steve N. Isaak, published by—2007/6470659

Jane Kohut-Bartels

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One Response to “Book Review: “Can’t Sleep: poems, 1987-2007”, by Steve N. Isaak”

  1. หาเพื่อน Says:

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