There are a few problems with Steven Schreiner’s 1997 book, Too Soon To Leave [Ridgeway Press]. Problem Number One: it’s out of print, but word is that you can find it at the campus bookstore in the University of Missouri-St. Louis (where Schreiner is a poetry professor), and savvy web-sleuths may be able to conjure a copy used from other sites.
Problem Numbers Two and Three are related: the title, and the cover. We see an old photo of an elderly man, and one immediately assumes this is a collection of tribute poems to Dear Old Dad. A few of them are… sort of. Schreiner has two Dear Old Dads addressed in this book: his birth father, and his step-father, who both died of cancer. Unlike the old photo on the cover, these Dear Old Dads had color. These Dear Old Dads were fascinating, complex characters who roughed mom up, ran around, and left a confused step-son, half full of love, the other half a mix of fear and disgust.
Everyone has a story to tell
of a father who fell from grace.
words seem to fly toward him
though I fight to keep them away.
--from “Imposing Presence,” by Steven Schreiner.
But don’t think this is only a family-poems book. There are poems about traveling, friendships, despairing marriages, and so much more. Perhaps most memorable are this coming of age poems; the sexual uneasiness of “Hypnotist,” or racing cars and eating burgers in the suburbs, defining the difference between the already-fast girls and “the sweetest, safest, most beautiful girl in the whole school” that he wanted to make fast (from “Chuck-A-Burger Drive-In”).
Steven Schreiner is always subtle, and maybe that’s why his lines take his readers unaware; an emotional ambush to realize the thing we thought we were reading about is really ten layers deep and a mile wider than expected. Schreiner’s naked, raw images stay with readers long after they’ve closed the book. For weeks they’ll carry them around like friends, haunted by a ME carved in wood from a chainsaw (from “Overlook”); the weighted last line of “The Diver,” in an hour, out of air, I will go up; and advising, “Break rules, even your own, especially” (from “Far From Poetics”).
Do yourself a favor: Find this book. Rip off the cover (or don’t. Keep it your great secret), read, and be surprised. Witness the human heart, beating and bleeding in words. Feel it. Gasp, as you realize that it may just be your own.