The Face: A Novella in Verse

( 1 )


A haunting and inventive book length sequence of poems from the distinguished author of Study for the World's Body.

The Face is both fiercely lyrical and intimately conversational. Coming to terms with the failure of a great love, the speaker descends into his own dark night of the soul. Here are poems that explore the drama of the shattered self in a variety of voices, calling on memory to speak and imagination to make beauty from the shards. Slowly, the speaker reassembles his...

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The Face: A Novella in Verse

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A haunting and inventive book length sequence of poems from the distinguished author of Study for the World's Body.

The Face is both fiercely lyrical and intimately conversational. Coming to terms with the failure of a great love, the speaker descends into his own dark night of the soul. Here are poems that explore the drama of the shattered self in a variety of voices, calling on memory to speak and imagination to make beauty from the shards. Slowly, the speaker reassembles his life and again finds faith in himself and the world. These poems reveal a swirling cinematic poetry of visionary scope; meditative and confessional in some moments, ironic and playful in others.

Deeply passionate and raw in its candour, The Face may be for this generation of poets what Lowell's Life Studies and Ashbery's Self–Portrait in a Convex Mirror were.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
St. John's ninth collection is roughly plotted around a midlife crisis: "Each day, in the mirror, that face smeared a bit more brutally/ Across the glass." In order to push the narcissism to its limits, St. John confronts his speaker with a forthcoming biopic of his own life, complete with poor scripting by an ex-, "Infanta," and a young cinematographer "with a pierced dick." Fuguing around writing process-oriented repetitions of "assembling" and "dissembling," the speaker utters an Eliotic cri de coeur ("I have invented a whole philosophy of shatterings"), complains about the script ("That tapestry of travesty") and alternately fantasizes about and feels revulsion for the "hot" young woman cast to play him, with "a certain angel-butch Joan-of-Arcish kind of thing." September 11, as a key recent event in the speaker's life, is presented as a set piece with "flakes of flint falling/ Through long fingers of flame. Black leaves. Feuilles de noire." Faulty cell phone communication, straight talk on cultural decline ("remind us why anyone gives a shit, OK?") and a lengthy diversionary prose poem listing varieties of masks follow, until, at the premiere of the movie of his life, the speaker "hurls," crawls outside and sees a vision of his own face assemble in the sky. Despite some entertainingly arch moments (on literary couples: "all that flesh made word") and anecdotes of self-abnegation, most readers will have put it together and walked out long before that. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Though dubbed a novella, St. John's eighth volume of poetry is less a narrative than a phantasmagoric dream diary or extended dramatic monolog. The speaker is a Hollywood jet-setter who's lost his (or perhaps her) sense of identity and strives to recapture it through a series of fevered meditations on past loves and exotic travels, waxing metaphorical on "the fluent confetti of the soul...a self/ Assembled like the mosaic of a mask, the whole of that self assembled of light." The narrator repeatedly bemoans his fractured persona ("The Cubist me I'll carry out into the world"), yearning to "unclench that final personal pronoun." St. John's expansive, barely lineated prose brims with color, motion, and a cinematographer's sense of mise-en-sc ne, but the cloying self-centeredness of the speaker ("The real, the vital & gloriously broken me") and the vagueness of his melodramatic torment fail to earn sympathy. This work functions well enough as a satire of the movie world's self-importance in a media-obsessed age, but that seems too broad a target for St. John's eloquence and verve. While angst abounds, it ricochets in a hermetic chamber all its own. For comprehensive collections only.-Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A shattered, ironic, yet seductive and haunting sequence of poems … [of] languorous beauty.”
Harvard Review
“St. John has written an extremely beautiful book that brings us to the edge of beauty and beauty’s possibility.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641969171
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/5/2005
  • Pages: 80
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Prizewinning poet David St. John is the author of ten collections of poetry, including Study for the World's Body: New and Selected Poems, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, as well as Where the Angels Come Toward Us, a volume of essays, interviews, and reviews. He is the co-editor, with Cole Swenson, of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. He teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Venice Beach.

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First Chapter

The Face
A Novella in Verse


I used to live there, but that was
Before yesterday. Yesterday is so boring, don't you think?
Even my black trench coat thinks so, & it's very sophisticated,
Having once belonged to Dennis Hopper before I found it
On the used rack at Animal House. Ron the owner says, fingering
The shiny ink of the lapels, "Dennis Hopper." "Cool," I say.
So into the bright day I walk out like the night. "Face it,"
Toni says when she sees me later
At the sushi counter at Hama, "Dennis Hopper you're not." "OK," I say --
"But the spicy tuna's terrific today." Which is why today
Is better than yesterday, don't you think? I said that to myself, not
To Toni or Ron or anybody. I said to myself, Yesterday is still so boring;
When I used to live there it was boring & even before yesterday
It was boring -- I mean, even before I knew it was boring,
Before yesterday -- & if I still
Lived there I would probably think it was boring. But today ...
Today, here with you standing right in front of me like
The body of a shadow or like a shadow naked as a body,
Like a woman dressed in a body naked
As a shadow, like a shadow undressing before a mirror, like yesterday,
Like a mirror with a shadow & a trench coat ... Well, here, today, as
We both undo the loose belts of
Our shadows, our trench coats, our bodies, here with you ...
It's really never boring. Not today, no, & not even before

The Face
A Novella in Verse
. Copyright © by David St. John. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted November 5, 2009

    My Review of "The Face"

    The thing I enjoyed most about the The Face was that it required some light cross-referencing. It made me feel like the collection itself was wearing a mask of sorts and the only way to appreciate the book in its whole glory was to enlighten myself and chip away at its outer layer of references. In this way, I shed light on the dark spots or "blackness" that is so prevalent throughout the book.
    "Blackness," assemblage, and disassemblage are all motifs throughout the book and are cleverly and tactfully interwoven by St. John through his work. As the speaker in many of the poems assembles meaning, he disassembles unknowing, or blackness. As the speaker disassembles confusion and blackness, he assembles meaning and understanding. I found the fluidity of motif-mixing to be remarkable, something for me to strive toward as a poet. As a reader, I was thankful for St. John's subtlety in revisiting his motifs because I never felt as if I were being hit over the head with them.
    The first section focuses mainly on introducing the speaker and discussing the things that he does not understand or that he is contemplating at the moment-Infanta's movie, dreams, the drawings of Raphael. The first thing I do when I open a new collection of poems is to peruse the book to see where and if any of the poems were previously published. I would have never guessed that "V" was a poem inspired by or about 9-11, but it appeared in a collection of September 11th poems. When I read it, I read it as a poem about a dark day and trying to make sense of that day. Knowing that it was about September 11th gives new meaning to lines like "Where were you, do you remember?" and ".were you dreaming of our bodies falling through black rain." had new meaning the second time around. Like the poems that revisit the motifs of this collection, this poem is subtle; it doesn't preach or mourn in the overtly depressing, overly patriotic way that lots of 9-11 material does.
    In the first section, I felt as if I were in a suburb (because poems like "II" references Main Street) and sometimes, I felt I had a connection to a large metropolis (Infanta feels like she is calling from a big city). In section two, I am transported to Europe, namely Italy. When St. John writes about the movie based on his life, I believe that the reader should take this as tongue-in-cheek, fictionalized in a slightly surreal way. But I feel like the speaker is actually visiting Europe, and part of me wants to know why. In part one, it seems as if the speaker is having a hard time making sense of his community and his life, so why go to Italy and try to disassemble the mysteries of a city that is centuries older than all of America as we know it?
    The final section of the book differs from the first two in that the speaker seems to possess more understanding of things that are occurring in his life. There seems to be less pondering and less questioning and more explanation and description. In "XXXI," the first poem in the section, I get the sense that the speaker gains a better understanding of himself by seeing Cybèle portray him in the film. In "XXXV," the poem with Frederick Seidel and "Sharon Stone," the lines that stuck out to me were, "You see, when you step into the movie of your own / Poems, anyone can enter." It was as if the speaker/poet gained an understanding of himself and the way his writing functions.

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