Review: The Bedlam Philharmonic and Other Poems by Steven Withrow

The Bedlam Philharmonic and Other Poems by Steven Withrow (March 2020)

52 pages, $6.99 paperback
Reviewed by Joshua Gage

Steven Withrow is a poet, author, and teacher from Falmouth. He is also a reporter for the local Enterprise newspapers. His poems for children and adults have appeared in journals and anthologies worldwide, including the National Geographic Books of Animal and Nature Poetry, Calliope, and Cape Cod Poetry Review. He visits schools and libraries throughout New England working with students and teachers in reading and writing verse. He is a graduate of Roger Williams University and Emerson College. His newest collection is The Bedlam Philharmonic and Other Poems

What stands out about The Bedlam Philharmonic and Other Poems is the intricate craft of the poems. Withrow clearly understands how to put a poem together, and the language of his rhymes and lines is pure aural pleasure. Take, for example, the opening stanza of his poem “This Borrowed Thing”:

When Henley saw her mother’s wedding dress,
She said, flat out, “I’d rather wear a bag.”
Her maid of honor, Jill, whose suggestion it was
To revive Hen’s late mom’s boxed-up gown, regretted
Recommending it. But her friend had fretted
For weeks in bridal shops, forlorn because
Perfection added thousands to the tag
And Hen had debts, her father’s life a mess

Clearly, the end rhymes are there, and work naturally. They are not forced, nor are the lines padded with extraneous language to force the meter. Everything flows naturally and smoothly. What Withrow excels at, though, are his sonic symphonies. The assonance of this stanza, as with many of his poems, is rich and hypnotizing. Add to that subtle hints of consonance (“REgretted, REcommending, fRIEND, fRETted, etc.) which are clearly there and elegantly done, but don’t stand out as blatant or obvious, and these poems are masterfully put together. 

However, what seems to be lacking in this collection of horror poetry is, unfortunately, the horror. While Withrow’s poems are gorgeous to hear, they lack the content to propel them forward. Many of these lyric or narrative poems simply don’t end with anything resonant enough to scare, or even haunt, the reader. Withrow’s intentions seem to be focused on those open-ended, unknown horrors. This could be likened to Weird Fiction or Weird Poetry, but the horrors here are alluded to. They are vague, and unknown, and so ephemeral as to be almost nonexistent. Take, for example, the lyric poem, “Terzanelle for the Devils Tour Bus.”

At a highway rest stop north of Providence,
My wife and I, up all night driving, slept
Slumped in our seats until the radiance 

Of sunrise woke me, and I quickly swept
The sludge of slumber from my mouth and eyes.
Glancing over to see that Meg still slept,

I stretched my arms and legs. To my surprise,
A dozen yards ahead a bus was parked—
Again, I rubbed the slumber from my eyes; 

It looked to me the whole of it was marked
With painted pagan symbols, bright as flame—
A dozen yards ahead a bus was parked, 

Blazoned with pictographs. There was a name
Across the blackened windows: Lord of Tours.
Those painted pagan symbols, bright as flame— 

Goat-men, serpents—leapt from yawning doors.
With Meg sleeping there north of Providence,
Our Wrangler’s windshield cracked, the Lord of Tours
Revealed to me his hellish radiance.  

The last stanza, particularly the last line, seems to want to invoke a resonant moment. Obviously a mood-based poem, this lyric wants to invoke something deeper, something haunting and scary, that keeps the speaker awake. But the images simply aren’t strong enough to carry that idea forward, and the reader is left wanting. While it’s not a weak poem, certainly, it’s not a scary or horrific poem, and readers expecting horror poetry will be disappointed.

Overall, Steven Withrow’s book The Bedlam Philharmonic and Other Poems is not a horrible collection, but it’s not brilliant, either. Withrow clearly can craft a sonically lush poem, but they’re just not scary or horrific enough to be truly haunting. While some readers will enjoy the poems for their lyrical success, most fans of horror poetry will be left wanting. 

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