If Gertrude Stein were studying medicine in the 21st century, the Steiny Road Poet believes she might have deeply appreciated the accomplishments of Don Krieger, a biomedical researcher who served 18 years as a clinical neurophysiologist for high-risk surgical procedures (Steiny said, "oh, so you were an advocate for the brain and spine" and he smiled broadly and nodded yes in a Zoom meeting July 9, 2020). In July 2020, he published for the first time a full-length book of poetry.
HOW THE BRAIN WORKS
Discovery by Don Krieger is a page turner. Here is the title poem:
I mainly think about
what no one knows,
nor I either,
how the brain works,
is God truly cruel,
why what I know as truth
you know as lie,
why you hate me
and I you.
If most people wrote the line "how the brain works" that might be somewhat interesting, but Krieger has been the man standing with a neurosurgeon advising how long blood can be cut to the brain for this patient without either killing him or her or markedly altering this human being's behavior and personality. Krieger is notably modest in his thinking and knowledge about how the brain works. However, he, like many scientists, does not believe in God (he told me so), but he allows for the possibility that God exists. So his question "is God truly cruel" sends out ripples in Discovery.
In the poem "Unveiling," we learn Krieger, who lives in Pittsburgh, is co-worker and friend of a woman who lost her husband in the October 27, 2018, Tree of Life Synagogue mass shooting. In the next poem "Passover Prayer," Krieger interrogates himself and God around the subject of cruelty.
Am I true, kind, good?
I judge myself without mercy.
But the relentless cycle of slavery and murder
we do in your image
is humble before your cruel glory.
If you truly exist and hear, then hear this:
by my poor standards, you are unfit.
If I held your might, almighty God,
in that instant I would erase you
and your memory
from all this is.
Inextricably these poems bring us back to the lines in "Discovery" questioning whether God is truly cruel and how that cascades into the problematic reality that my truth is your lie and therefore you hate me and I hate you. In this context, truth might be read as faith, religious faith, and therein the age old problems created by difference.
THROUGH THE LENS OF DIFFERENCE
Through the lens of difference, Krieger measures and spells out situations in his childhood, his adult life, and the world at large. Sometimes the comparisons are darkly shocking as in:
BOB AND AUTUMN
Autumn's talent brought them to Pittsburgh;
she ran the seizure unit at Magee.
It was Bob's idea that we might work together.
She died just after the Boston bombing.
Bob was arrested two months later.
Autumn was killed with cyanide.
My wife is gone too,
her twenty-five thousand per diem
ended with morphine on my consent.
Bob got life without parole;
I'm in love again.
I know there's a difference between us;
I haven't found what that is.
Krieger seems to be viewing the difference between himself and Bob in strict black and white terms. Consistently throughout the collection, the poet is hard on himself and unabashedly states he must take responsibility for his actions.
What happens in the world at large matters a great deal to Krieger. In his poem "That Which Is Missing," he states, "I write because I have something to say." It's helpful to know that his writing mentor was the formidable Denise Levertov. Levertov, whose poetry—according to the Poetry Foundation—"reflected her beliefs as an artist and humanist" and whose work "embraced a wide variety of genres and themes," including nature, love, protest, and faith in God. Krieger met Levertov while he was an MIT undergraduate in mathematics. She profoundly moved him such that he added literature to his studies and graduated with a double major. Even so with the learning and poetic path mapped by Levertov, Krieger has only been working seriously in the field of poetry for about ten years. What triggered him to write was the loss of his wife.
Lyrical essays is what Krieger calls his poems. Krieger is unafraid to tackle any subject. He takes on the critic, publisher, and reader in "That Which Is Missing," caring most about his reader, as seen in these stanzas:
If I am repeatedly asked to reconcile irreconcilable things, I put
the piece down unfinished. That is not because I think it is bad
or because I am impatient. Rather it is part of my aesthetic that
what I read should make sense—I am not a trusting person.
I write sentences, correctly formed and lucid to the extent I can; I
then begin removing things. I remove syntactic elements to
highlight the voice of the piece. I remove words and phrases to
simplify the language, to tighten the ideas, to elevate the music.
I remove bits of information to avoid telling the reader what to
think, how to feel.
I write because I have something to say. I remove things because
I want that something to move you because it moved me.
TREVAILS OF GETTING PUBLISHED … OR NOT
Like most poets, Krieger has had trouble getting poems with content he considers important published. For example, "Cassandra, Daughter of Troy," his longest poem that is approached through multiple points of view and presents like a series of soliloquies in a play. He wants Cassandra to be embraced as a hero and, like other poems in this collection, Krieger is sensitive to the woman's marginalized position in the world he knows. To Steiny, this inability to get work published, especially longer works, begged the question how did he get Discovery published?
Brightening up, Krieger said that because he was published in Taj Mahal Review—and these were socially conscious poems that were not so easy to place—Cyberwit which is the umbrella publisher of Taj Mahal Review invited him to send them a manuscript.
TULSA POGROM OF 1921 AS COVER
Doug Pearsall's cover art depicts a scene from what Krieger in "That Familiar Comfort" calls the Tulsa pogrom of 1921 (more widely known as the Tulsa Race Riot), when kerosene bombs were dropped from biplanes on the prosperous Black town of Greenwood. Readers can hear Krieger read this poem, and selected others, through QR symbols planted at the bottom of the page. His monotone readings sound appropriately monkish and add much to the experience of this remarkable collection of poetry.
ONE LAST QUESTION
Steiny's last question to Krieger was what did he hope to get out of this review, after all, he has accrued glowing comments from E. Ethelbert Miller, Margo Stever, Michael Wurster, Hiram Larew, Susana Case, Judith Robinson—poets Steiny knows well and respects. He answered that he wants readers like Steiny to take the time to think about what concerns him and how it plays out in our shared world.