Book Review   

Alex Stolis, Li Po Comes to America, Parallel Press, 2010. $10

Reviewed by Lisa Vihos

In Li Po Comes to America (Parallel Press, 2010), Alex Stolis takes us on a multi-layered journey through states of longing, loss, and consciousness. On this free-wheeling journey, we locate threads that hold the poet’s free-verse offerings together. I was first struck by repeated references to burning: the sun, cigarettes, glances, tattoos, and cash (as in “burning through”).

Curves also play a role here: the curve of a breast, a shoulder, the earth, the cupping of a hand at the nape of a neck. There are numerous references to coming together and falling apart; to movement; to beginnings and endings; to casual sex and deep love; to memory and suicide. There is the pull of the ocean, the moon, and an endless road.

As things are continually falling apart, so are they also continually coming together. That is because there are these damn laws of nature, which knit the universe together even in its perpetual unraveling. Stolis has set up his compact, razor-sharp poems in a compelling manner. Every two poems are paired with a physical law, for example: the First Law of Thermodynamics, Newton’s First Law of Motion, Avogadro’s Law, Schrödinger’s Cat, and 17 others.

On each page, we have the name of the law and the two poems, which are visually (and metaphorically) bisected by a brief statement of the law. Ponder then Hooke’s Law, which states: “The stress of a solid is directly proportional to the strain the solid exhibits.” The first poem within this law is called “whatthefucktodo” and it begins:

After you go, I will live
like dirt, learn to ply a trade
in Mexico until words taste
new again and in the time
it takes to fall off the wagon
a banyan tree burns….

The second poem on the page, “Venice Beach,” is only three lines long:

I will remember you
the way the ocean looked—
ready to grab the moon.

How, you might ask, does the eighth-century Chinese poet, Li Po, fit into this adventure? One of the most acclaimed poets of the Tang Dynasty, Li Po was noted for his poems that celebrate the drinking of wine (and flat-out drunkenness) as well as a sense of wanderlust. Stolis views the ancient bard as being a member of the Beat Generation, such as it was in the eighth-century, and Stolis explores the Beat’s signature on-the-road, devil-may-care approach to existence throughout the chapbook.

In Newton’s Second Law of Motion, Stolis writes in a short poem called “Drinking Alone:”

The sun is too hot, I can hear the rush
of the river, a bartender pretends to care
about the politics of loneliness.

When it gets dark enough I can see the outline
of your body against the water—a few more drinks
and I will be able to cut my face on your skin.

I love that phrase, “the politics of loneliness.” It seems to be rather at the heart of the matter in this collection. Repeat readings of the poems and their organizing laws reveal a bittersweet sense that no matter how close one gets to a lover, one is always inside one’s own skin:  

Someday you will forget
my name—I will not remember
the curve of your breast.

or, a few pages later in a different poem:

You take off your dress—the wind scatters
light across my bed. I’m hundreds of miles
from nowhere—too afraid to whisper your name.

and much later, in a poem called “Getty Museum:”

I am your sculpture
with chipped mouth,
glazed eyes—
not ready to listen,
not ready to have the bits
of my life swept under
your bare feet.

Revisiting the road that the poet presents in Li Po Comes to America reveals the poems as photographs that can be viewed in any order. Stolis gives us a collage of images that I find myself contemplating at random, doubling back, replaying a certain poem for its stark imagery.

The poet has formed a mini-universe here that is held together, like the actual universe, by immutable laws. His language is simple, direct, and uncluttered. His tone is conversational and unpretentious. It is as though we are sitting at the bar with him at 3:00 in the afternoon when the sun still pours in through the windows and there is the possibility of hope. With Stolis as your guide, you will likely still be there at last call, when it is very dark, still drinking his words. You can travel every road that makes itself known to you, drink yourself night after night into a stupor, find a companion to hold you for a while. However, all that will fade. Despite the fact that you might wish that the answers could be found outside yourself, nothing can replace the laws of your own experience; the nucleus of energy that is you. When you read Li Po Comes to America, I am quite certain that some part of it will remind you exactly of you.

Lisa Vihos worked for twenty years as an art museum educator and is now the Director of Alumni Relations at Lakeland College. Her poems have appeared previously in Verse Wisconsin, and in Free Verse, LakefireWisconsin People and Ideas, Seems,and Big Muddy. She is an associate editor of a new literary journal, Stoneboat, which made its debut in October, 2010. She resides in Sheboygan with her 12-year-old son and maintains a weekly poetry blog