Standing Pelican: Key West Poems And Stories
A compilation about people and events in Key West where the author lives, this collection of poetry, short fiction and a play is as mixed a bag of writing as it is of writing styles. Steinhardt moved to Key West from his home in St Louis, much as Tennessee Williams did, and the final entry in the book is a play about the playwright and poet Williams set in contemporary Key West that has as its assumptive basis the non-fact that Williams is still alive and living in coastal island Florida.
"A Summer Place: A Conversation with Tennessee Williams" is set in a room on Duval Street overlooking a street-corner lamp and a gay bar. Williams and his "assistant" have been packing for a move to another residence and he has agreed to be interviewed by a woman who arrives late and out of breath. Williams, it seems, has never died and probably never will. However, in Steinhardt's rendition of the playwright, Williams has no new thoughts, no new outlooks, no new insights into his or any other condition. Instead he is a man who can only quote from his own works
No matter what questions are asked, what comments are made or what actions are taken or not taken by the "Young Man" every statement that issues from Williams has been heard before in other situations. Steinhardt has forged responses from multiple sources and here is where the concept weakens. Many of the quotes are overly familiar and many are relatively obscure, though they usually deal with the same thing. In combining these elements into short responsive speeches the author here lets his subject down a bit. Known to ramble in his speech, this Williams rambles less than he spouts. His words don't always connect with one another, but his mind seems too singularly concentrated.
Williams words have been drawn from eighty-six sources including his plays, poetry and prose. The distraction of recognition sometimes becomes a stopper: you don't hear the next line for remembering the previous one. The play is flawed by its own brilliant construction and the necessity for outside influences from the street below. These interruptions are as much visual as they are vocal and the script's technique is more cinematic than stageworthy.
Similarly Steinhardt's stories are sometimes merely character sketches with no narrative purpose, such as "A Square Green Patch of Earth," or lengthy adventures leading to no ending like "The Thing You Least Expect." Others create vivid pictures of people and place, all of the places being sites in Key West. Best among them is "Johnny Bible," a vivacious tale of a young man who enigmatically secures the attention of a bartender named Mac. Mac keeps track of Johnny's presence and his effect on the other people who meet the boy. He even holds a letter that Johnny has been anticipating for much of the story when Johnny leaves it behind. That letter, like a message from God, has a resonance for Mac that surprises even him, for it explains nothing of the enigma that is the boy. This is a brilliant effort by a writer to show how obsession begets regret, how solitariness becomes loneliness and the how the spirit can be lifted and dropped in an instant.
If all of Steinhardt's stories had this compelling nature this would be a great book, but instead the book is only a half-hearted event. The story that follows Johnny's tale is "The Trials of January Jones" and, luckily, it does not let us down one bit. As strong and definitive a story as that of Mr Bible, January Jones' life history is truly a story of its place and time, and yet it rings in a memory bank of other folks we all might know whose own spirals in life must replicate the confusions of Ms. Jones world.
It is that condition of universality that pervades the poems that open this book. "The Tarot Reader" is disturbing; its subject the nature of reality in life and the perception of that reality. "The Marriage" is almost the universal fear of gay men everywhere as it deals in brief with the brevity of meeting. "The Algebra of Love..." is a lengthy mind-spurt through memories and the contemplation of suicide.
The final poem is "Going and Coming Back" which in its own tightly written and beautifully expressed way gives us the poet and his choices in life. Like "Johnny Bible" this poem brings us closest to the heart of the man who writes the words. It is fitting that it closes the Poetry section, but it could have just as well closed the book itself. Perhaps a different ordering of the material included in Standing Pelican would have made a difference for the book, for right now it feels like three separate entities bound into one place rather than what it should have been, a book that gives poetic voice to three forms of writing.
I suppose reading the pieces in random order solves the problem. It is how I should have approached it. Maybe next time.