Wade Stevenson’s Going Head to Head (BlazeVOX, 2019) is a book-length poem that takes the head as its central theme as a way to explore various states of being—from the metaphysical, to the spiritual, to the romantic, to the personal and the political. It is an intensely lyrical and playful book, employing rhythm, repetition, and rhyme to create a reading experience that is sensuously musical. Here, Stevenson writes poetry that stimulates the mind and the body; his lyrical voice is loose, venturing into moments of ballad-style writing as well as stream-of-consciousness. His poetry is uniquely his own, crafted from the lyrical rhythms of his own mind. In that sense, Going Head to Head is a poem about the poet’s journey through his inner musical self, and how his sense of being and knowing the world evokes universal concepts of the self, higher forms of knowledge, intimacy, love, regret, personal turmoil, and the desire to transcend.
One of the strengths of Going Head to Head is the way Stevenson incorporates spiritual/metaphysical/philosophical elements into the poem. He does this through the lyric in its various forms (ballad, free-verse, couplets), creating captivating results. Near the beginning of the book, the speaker proclaims:
Could the world be saved
By the fragrance of a biscuit dipped in tea?
Nothing was sure. No sooner was a certainty
Raised in place than it began to crumble.
Impossible to say the thing in itself,
To say flower, grass, tree
To strip the masks, to embrace
The pure nudity of a face, to say how or why
The brain reacts or is it the heart
That knows and grows…
Playfulness is another aspect that helps drive the poem, creating a pleasant kind of tension: “Could the world be saved / By the fragrance of a biscuit dipped in tea?” It is a philosophical question with humorous undertones, but it also speaks to the larger concerns of the book: what is the relationship between the physical world and the head? This part of the poem also seeks to get to the root of things, how to uncover the authentic self, which is another thread that runs throughout the book. This section concludes with the following lines: “Close your eyes / You are now in the house of your memories / Enjoy the stay.” Much of the book explores Buddhist concepts of spirituality: what it means to tap into a universal consciousness, being and non-being, and emptiness. There are moments where the speaker becomes incredibly monk-like and those moments are particularly compelling:
If you can hear just one bird singing
It’s the same as many birds singing
If you can love one woman profoundly
It’s the same as loving all women profoundly
Further down, the speaker says
From the ocean depths a prophetic voice arose
“Stop thinking,” it said
“When you know that you are no longer thinking
Life will begin again.”
Both passages in particular play with the quatrain—the first passage is musical and rhythmic; the second passage is written in the style of free-verse prose. These different literary elements create a wonderful clash of language as they explore the ideas of universal love and mind-clearing meditative states. Here is another particularly musical section that examines spirituality using the concept of the head:
This head, my head, your head
Her head, his head, our head
No one’s head, everyman’s head
But look out ahead, on the wall
Glares a mounted devil head
Some catastrophe before the fall
You may seek to get ahead
You may live to give God head
To unite with the great Godhead
The poetry is very contained in its use of music as the head takes on various forms: “my head,” “your head,” “our head,” “devil head,” “Godhead.” It also employs quick little playful turns: “But look out ahead… / Glares a mounted devil head,” “You may seek to get ahead / You may live to give God head / To unite with the great Godhead.” There are multiple plays on the word “head” that add humorous tension to the poem while also allowing space for readers to contemplate the role the head plays physically and metaphorically. The head is not only a physical thing; it is also a larger metaphysical thing that encompasses all heads. In essence, all heads belong to the “great Godhead.” They are individual, but also representative of the whole.
Another wonderful aspect of Going Head to Head is the use of the romantic and how it gets translated through a spiritual lens. The speaker says that “On the horizon the face of the beloved / Shines with a thousand transparencies.” Here, the head represents the face of the beloved and its moral beauty. The book contains many sections of poetry addressed to the beloved:
You looked in my eyes, you captured my head,
Took it on one long blazing phantasmagoric trip
The voyage never let up, my passport stamped
For multiple entries
Into the freedom-loving country of your body
In another place, the speaker says
Ashes will become petals in the wind
And so we go on, holding my head
In your hands, holding your head in mine
We will fall into flying
Here, readers encounter more playfulness in regards to the head. In the first passage, the speaker tells the beloved “you captured my head,” and the love experienced is a “blazing phantasmagoric trip…Into the freedom-loving country of your body.” Words like “phantasmagoric,” “trip,” “freedom-loving,” “country,” and “body” all point to various states of consciousness combined with physical places; the speaker experiences both mental and physical stimulation through his encounter with the beloved. The second passage employs romantic phrases: “Ashes will become petals in the wind,” and “We will fall into flying” combined with images of the head: “holding my head / in your hands, “holding your head in mine.” The romantic and the spiritual are brought together to create a beautiful moment between the speaker and his beloved.
The magic of Going Head to Head is that the poetry varies as the speaker shifts from one subject to the next, from one feeling to the next. The poetry in this book is spontaneous; it is one long thought-trail that winds through a variety of terrains (both mental and physical). It is a poem that allows readers to encounter a brilliantly written couplet: “From crates of garbage rotting on the sidewalk / We found and saved one strawberry” or a single lyrical line: “The music of my mind has wings.” Going Head to Head is a metaphysical journey rooted in the mind, but it feels very open and expansive as it explores larger concepts of the self, spirituality, and what it means to feel love. It is an inspiring book; it is the type of poem that grows richer each time it’s read.
Originally published in The Literary Review, January 2021