Steven Schroeder’s “Guidebook Says” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #5 of Cha)
Schroeder’s poem “Guidebook Says” accurately captures the atmosphere which permeates a city before a typhoon strikes: the tension, the expectation, the danger in the air. In the opening lines, we see a storm approaching Southern China. For Schroeder, the typhoon announces its arrival in a kind of language. Like a bird sings, a cicada chirps or a wolf howls, the storm speaks a language which is natural to it: ‘Typhoon mumbles something / about coming to Guangdong / in a language of waves / and steady rain that grows / stronger as the day passes’ (L1-L5). Its syntax is water – it mumbles in waves and rain. As it comes closer, will it then yell in wind?
But the storm hesitates before choosing a place to land: ‘It hangs offshore, feet shuffling like a tourist / running out of time / torn between sights / the guidebook says must not be missed’ (L5-L9). The idea that there is a ‘guidebook’ for the storm to consult is thought-provoking, suggesting that even natural forces tend to follow certain predestined paths. Is the poet simply saying that the storm is guided by physical rules of the natural world? Or is he imagining something more philosophical and theological? Whose suggestions is the storm considering? Schroeder’s personification of the storm as a tourist also encourages the reader to imagine other perspectives on the typhoon’s approach. For example, one can envision a tourist new to the city in question, nervously consulting his or her guidebook and judging the sky to see if there will be enough time to take in one more sight.
In the final section of the poem, we see the reaction the typhoon causes in the people of the city. Although the storm has not chosen its final destination, it keeps ‘talking rain’ (L10-L11). Unable to ignore the storm’s voice, people play it safe and carry ‘umbrellas and anticipation’ (L12). They know, however, that ultimately umbrellas will not protect them as the storm speaks increasingly loudly. Their thoughts, therefore, turn to ‘what has to be tied down / before the wind rises’ (L13-L14).
In the end, beyond its depiction of an oncoming weather event, Schroeder’s poem may also provide a description of life in general. Don’t we all spend time ‘thinking / about what has to be tied down / before the wind rises’? Aren’t we all ‘carrying / umbrellas and anticipation’ of rain? Whose guidebook are we reading?
Steven Schroeder is the co-founder, with composer Clarice Assad, of the Virtual Artists Collective (a “virtual” gathering of musicians, poets, and visual artists) that has published five poetry collections each year since it began in 2004. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in After Hours,Concho River Review, the Cresset, Mid-America Poetry Review, Poetry East, Poetry Macao, Rhino, Sichuan Literature, Texas Review,TriQuarterly, Wichita Falls Literature & Art Review, and other literary journals. He has published two chapbooks, Theory of Cats andRevolutionary Patience, and five full-length collections, Fallen Prose, The Imperfection of the Eye, Six Stops South, A Dim Sum of the Day Before and (with Debby Sou Vai Keng) A Guest Giving way Like Ice Melting: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Laozi. He teaches at the University of Chicago in Asian Classics and the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. Visit his website for more information.