Stephen Bett, Those Godawful Streets of Man
Publisher: BlazeVOX Books
2015, 112 pages, paperback, $16
I GREW UP in a small town in west Texas, and it is about as close to a big city as it sounds. I remember the first time I ever visited a major city. The very first thing I noticed was the number of people. They were everywhere. I couldn’t believe that all of these people could live in the same place. How do they get around? How do they get around, and into, the lives of other people? When you can make eye contact with a million people in a day, how do you make it mean something? I have no doubt that even those people who grew up in a large urban area looked around themselves in awe of so many fellow beings all living their respective lives in the same place, and wondered if they were happy there.
In Stephen Bett’s book Those God Awful Streets of Man: A Book Of Raw Wire In The City, I found a look at a city that is just as the book describes: raw. It is an unapologetic, unflinching look into the back alleys and poorly lit areas of the human condition. It gives the reader a look into an urban anger and despair that is as haunting as it is unwavering. It is the kind of beauty found in ruins of past civilizations.
The two major themes that run through the book are the notes of despondency and disconnect that seem to pop up somewhere in almost every poem. They arrive in the first poem, and the third poem respectively, in the last stanzas that read
Sacks that weigh against
tomorrow, make night
a heaviness, the true
heft of godawful
Millions dying, too, off-camera
cross-wired circuitry only just now
taking on generic interchangeable
From the very beginning, Bett presents this sense of an unfiltered speaker that will walk you through this book pointing at the tragedies of a place with language that does not lose itself in self-deprecation or sentimentality. Similarly, the flavor of social/romantic disconnection arrives on the next page, in the fourth poem, in the lines
Tight grid link
Hurt of love affair
boxes in that
By this point in the book you start to get a sense of the way this book will handle itself. It is equal parts imagery and plainspoken straightforwardness. The other aspect of this book that starts to become apparent, even this early on, is its relentless nature.
This book does not slow down. The further you go into it, the more momentum it carries and the faster that momentum seems to be taking you. As this momentum picks up, the poems begin to change on the page. More and more lines begin to make up the poems, while those lines themselves become shorter. All the while, Bett is relentless in his tone, and finds ways to achieve his poems with fewer words as it progresses, like in these couple of stanzas from the “(53rd)” street poem:
You have no
All or nothing
The book ends on an almost sentimental note; it almost gives you the relief that a reader might be hoping for, a relief from this seemingly bleak existence in the city. Yet, Bett does not succumb to the hopeful desire of many. Instead, he barely hints at it and then pulls that hope quickly away in a manner much more befitting the book in the stanzas
The city is
live the city
He will be
say his child-
ren who know
This is not a “feel-good” kind of reading. That kind of emotional pleasure, I think, you would be hard-pressed to find in its pages. But, if you are willing to follow Bett into this urban world of frayed wire, dark alleys, and empty boxes, you will find a voice that is braver than many, and a view of the world that is beautiful in its starkness. Those God Awful Streets Of Man: A Book Of Raw Wire In The City gives you exactly what the name suggests. You only have to take a breath and dive into a world perhaps more familiar than we would like to admit.
Check out our interview with Stephen Bett here.
Stephen Bett has had fifteen previous books of poetry published: Breathing Arizona: A Journal (Ekstasis Editions, 2014); Penny-Ante Poems (Ekstasis Editions, 2013); Sound Off: a book of jazz (Thistledown Press, 2013); Re-Positioning (Ekstasis Editions, 2011); Track This: a book of relationship (BlazeVOX Books, 2010); S PLIT (Ekstasis Editions, 2009); Extreme Positions: the soft-porn industry Exposed (Spuyten Duyvil Books, 2009); Sass ’n Pass (Ekstasis Editions, 2008); Three Women (Ekstasis Editions, 2006); Nota Bene Poems: A Journey (Ekstasis Editions, 2005); Trader Poets (Frog Hollow Press, 2003); High-Maintenance (Ekstasis Editions, 2003); High Design Refit (Greenboathouse Books, 2002); Cruise Control (Ekstasis Editions, 1996); Lucy Kent and other poems (Longspoon Press, 1983).
His work has also appeared in over 100 literary journals in Canada, the U.S., England, Australia, New Zealand, and Finland, as well as in three anthologies, and on radio.
His “personal papers” have been purchased by the Simon Fraser University Library, and are, on an ongoing basis, being archived in their “Contemporary Literature Collection” for current and future scholarly interest.
He lives in Vancouver.
For reviews of his books, please see stephenbett.com.