The Plague Doctor in his Hull-Shaped Hat by Stephen Massimilla
Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2012; 118 pp
Reviewed by Paul French


You might guess from the title that this book isn’t short for words.  No, this is an extremely lush, Dionysian entry from poet Stephen Massimilla.  Winner of the Stephen F. Austin University Press Poetry Prize, The Plague Doctor in his Hull-Shaped Hat escorts the reader into a concourse of intimate moments.

Most of the time, these poems take place abroad, in Italy, where the speaker (or characters, as in this month’s Closer Poetry installment below) muses on his placements as a stranger in a strange land growing familiar or as a pulp of currency in a place where history and myth are palpable.     

Thematically, the book is concerned with the arrangement of the entropic, with taking the chaos of the world and “stylizing” it.  That said, the operative ego of this arranged world is aware of his doings and can’t help but analyze.  Make no mistake, the voice here is very academic.  Apposition and turgid modification compound endlessly, resulting sometimes, unfortunately, in catachrestic metaphors.  However, Massimilla builds enough intrigue with his language and layers of meaning to buoy the poems above this oversaturation.  And the subject matter is intimate enough at times to cope with the book’s grandiloquent style.  Furthermore, Massimilla has provided a bevy of helpful notes at the back of the book, which clear up much of the lexical and allusive density that cloud some of the poems.  These notes are an interesting read in themselves for the erudition and labor they reveal on the author’s part.

I can recommend ArgosSpringlessMetafora, and Vacance as some of the book’s outstanding poems.  Look to this month’s Closer Poetry for a better idea of what lies in store in Plague Doctor.

Closer Poetry #5

Two in Sicilian Sunlight

Guess I’ll drop another aspirin moon, he thinks without thinking
he’s had too much wine, guzzling a sunset of Sicilian orange, fool’s blood,

in fact, on a table of cioccalata. Urethra of porcelain teapot hisses
and spies, looking even less likely than she is to be nice. He takes note

(behind his girlfriend’s head, they pluck his mental tendons) of teenage ragazze
in tight tee-shirts with foreign words like “Freedom” inscribed on them.

With their went-thither hips in zucchini-green denim, they traipse
the lungomare, tossing corkscrews of hair. Stylized chaos.

Out of his and her outsiders’ observations, a few words flicker
unnervingly, aloud: So much smoking, she says.

Living by different rules, he says. Never saw the waiter
serve the fish. The blind eye in its own exploded pus. An hour later,

silver skin and milk-white meat still stringy close to the bone recall
cord-tossed merchandise half-packed in crates. (Like old American military belts

at the Salvation Army, argentine eels had filled the early-dawn gazebos,
button eyes fresh and black and huge. One of them made eye contact

with her.) Cats belonging to no one kept circling, brushing against them,
fangs of ice, tongues given over to delicious luxuries.

Stanzas 1-3

The poem begins on an interior banality, dotted with one small signage of romance: “another aspirin moon.” We are told that the “he” of the poem is drunk, or is at least combatting the effects of being drunk for several days. The first line’s enjambment adumbrates the male figure as a sugared over automaton, a vacationer in the death-throe stages of the trip when the early thrill has conceded to an apathy of decadence. 

The expedient popping of aspirin signals a dull wish to keep the first pleasures of drinking hobbling along; it’s the same desperate prolongation achieved by a vomitorium-goer between courses—an apt analogy here given the excess-swill the poem pots: a moon of aspirin, a sunset of wine, a table of chocolate. Just another day in paradise. The “in fact” interrupter that stitches the second and third line is a common gun for Massimilla to draw in this book.  One thing readers will notice, as I mentioned in my review above, is that these poems are very cerebral, academic, detached. Even the speaker here isn’t really participating in the diorama so much as he is a voyeur to it, an outsider analyst, here looking to reside in the spectacle blood of ragazze (hot Italian girl) skin throttled tight by American tee-shirts.  Now I’m getting off track and forgetting about that teapot urethra.  Yes, I too am a little puzzled by this teapot urethra.  Personally, I would’ve gone with urinal meatus, but whatever.  This spout, it seems, is not just a spout; also, it’s lacking a handle.  Where’s the article?  Why didn’t Massimilla write one in?  It’s an interesting aesthetic question for many lines in the book, as many subjects initiate the sentence baring articleless nudity for all Haiku-translators to approve.  Perhaps Massimilla doesn’t like to stumble over all those articles.  Maybe he wants us to focus on the urethra.  This teapot urethra. 

Actually, I think that the somewhat clumsy connecting of a teapot with a urethra invites us into the male character’s lubricious mental landscape, which is, in line five, pervily fixated on the two young girls walking by the café, despite the forward presence of his girlfriend.  The tease of young hotties in touristic paradise is an intriguing trope. Read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice for a geographically relevant example.  But I think a more accurate/current one can be found here.

I like how Masamilla twists this nymph in paradise concept so that the nymphs have a vestige of home inscribed on their shirts, a fairly significant one at that, given the wayward whims of our besotted Humbert Humbert clone.

Stanzas 4-6 

So our male character, a pleasure-diver we might speculate, is fetishizing the foreign girls, turning them into the trappings of his vacation, aspects of the land itself.  We can see him doing this immediately by likening their hair to corkscrews, which of course we’ll associate with wine, wine being associative of Italy and so forth.  Fresh-squeezed orange juice anyone?  How bout you, Mr. Spitzer? 

Masamilla’s transitional conclusion of “Stylized chaos” becomes a tidy representation for both the lens (the male character) and the image (scenes of Sicily), as he intensifies his focus on this foreign landscape, which now absorbs snaps of dialogue from him and his girlfriend, as they jib-jab about the food, the waiter, etc.  The following grotesque image of the fish eye conveys the mashup of blindness (as in the male character’s dead blindness to the reality of Sicily) and the excess this blindness has developed around it (meaning the fetishism that has grown into the cityscape). 

Stanzas 7-9    

The seventh couplet of the poem marks the beginning of a surreal tangent that is by far the most difficult section.  Here’s my take:  After the meal has been finished, the fish meat, loosely hanging on the bones, reminds the male character of some eels they had seen earlier. This slips into another connection, an image of American military belts at a Salvation Army.  This combination of elements—“military,” “Army,” merchandise—directs me to the colonial nature of the male character’s gaze.  The used belts, the eels, the fish, these are dead items that the male character has bought (or could buy) and consume at will.  However, despite this ability, the cats (synonymous with the nymphs from earlier) are there, brushing up against his legs, reminding him of an unattainable, and possibly dangerous, presence within the alien.