“A serious young man, / I had trouble saying yes / to the bright, clear days,” Soren Stockman’s Elephant begins. The poems that follow move through despair, self-destruction, and disassociation to arrive, finally, at that elusive affirmation. Accompanied throughout by the imagined presence of Joseph Merrick, the 20th Century entertainer and medical patient popularly depicted as “The Elephant Man,” Stockman’s speaker interrogates how storytellers have co-opted Merrick’s identity and obscured his voice and inner life. In this projected communion, Stockman tries to encounter the man who was rather than the role molded from his experiences. What does it mean to perform as another? What allows us to love ourselves, and what makes it hard? This debut collection is a path out of loneliness, beyond private absences, to the true self and what it harbors in its heart. Here, at the center of things, we succumb to the succor of existence, given to the light: “What a blessing to love the world / and then finally be born.”
“To Be Born” from Elephant
When I was young I was really
an old man. I remember it, delicate
and spacious: aware I would
become more honest, feel natural,
knowing half of love
is need. A serious young man,
I had trouble saying yes
to the bright, clear days. With what
pitiful ease we could change—
our lives out, something else in
—but the tissue holds memory
we don’t quite know. One
night, like a boxer dropping
his gloves, I answered
every question immediately.
Slowly we laughed more,
we were hysterical at night
and morning blew the doors open.
I ate a radish, never contracted
chicken pox, my singing improved
and women never stopped looking.
Then my friends began to die.
They passed through the beautiful old
maples I watch from my window.
What a blessing to love the world
and then finally be born.
Soren Stockman’s Elephant opens with seventeen short love poems, filled with raw passion and spirit. And then suddenly, we come to the second section, and the tone and landscape shift, slightly, into a world of the “Elephant Man,” its imagistic power and mystery revealed—the other, the outcast, a human specimen to be doctored on. Indeed, love is woven into this urban space that defies time; but true ‘brotherly love’ becomes the speaker’s real quest as Elephant unfolds each gift.
I looked at my loneliness and could say nothing,” writes Stockman in his debut. But these pages run away from that nothingness masterfully showcasing: love, shame, sensuality wrestling together. What a blessing Elephant is in the world, born ready to sing a tune that brings us out of solitude.
Soren Stockman’s quirky poetics lay bare a private life in Elephant where readers will find a closeness akin to autobiography although the details never depend on autobiography. Further, like “a crow constructs / a tool from another tool and finds its food,” Stockman presents a complex revealing of the legendary Elephant Man—and how he relates to and interrelates with this figure. Welcome this debut collection and Stockman’s marvelous elliptical sleight of hand.
What a beautiful book! These are remarkably wise poems, kind of a festival of wisdom, and then it turns whacky and I would even say piquant. Touching is exactly the word I mean about what I find here even when touch is the nullity Soren sounds. There is an abundance of the interior, Rilke being the easiest compare but Soren’s dedication to how the exterior wounds the soul and the soul carries on is the gift of this work that always unwinds and goes on, beautiful and beyond us. Spoiler alert! there are lots of poems in here I would call masterpiece.
From the fields of Wyoming to the New York stage, Soren Stockman’s poems of love and family are direct and forceful as they explore the powerful, unpayable debts that shape a self. Addiction, lust, anarchy—all are made tender in Stockman’s skill and imagination. Often inspired by theater and made alive by theater’s glittering and intoxicating illusions, Elephant shows us the beauty and pain of inhabiting a life and inhabiting a body.
Tennyson insisted, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” With sober insistence, Soren Stockman’s lovely, lovesick debut Elephant echoes Tennyson’s sentiment for the ages, as it breaks your heart. Just as love will, inevitably, break your heart. And, like love, Elephant is worth it.
Soren Stockman is a true poet who is interested in looking at the world without judging it. His debut book of poems, Elephant, is full of heart and reminds me that being alive is a singular experience. If you want to be reminded of that, read this book.