Review: Head v Heart by Rob Sturma
Among other things, Rob Sturma’s Head v Heart is a discussion of how popular culture can be magic, how it can help those who love it and take it seriously through life’s most difficult times. Sturma, who seems to be about the same age I am and shares many of the same cultural obsessions I had growing up, is able to pull out the magic of what the artists and athletes we loved were doing. This is not, however, simply a collection in praise of musicians, video games, and professional wrestling. It is a discussion that Vonnegut might have had if he had been the right age; Sturma is showing how focusing on those things that we love rather than what is tearing us apart can keep us from sinking into despair.
Sturma uses these things because as he shows again and again life can be hard; without them, we might lose ourselves. In “When You Are Filling out Job Applications by Hand,” he discusses how difficult life is for so many of us trying to make a subsistence living. The job market is broken, and he finds himself applying to and interviewing for jobs he hates:
I am willing to do anything.
You sold your pride for bus money.
You ate your sense of worth for breakfast.
You breathe in lungs full of repetition
and exhale wisps of hope.
You do not say I am willing to do anything
within reason. (29)
It’s not that the world around him forces him not to work. Working isn’t the problem. The problem is that he is forced to humiliate himself in so many different ways. He is not capable of making sure that what he is doing is reasonable. Those bits of humiliation are not just external, but internal as well. In “What I Said to the Mirror,” he writes about the negative self-talk he indulges in:
You stupid warrior.
You clutch the rose on your lapel too nervously.
You proud ill-attended bullfight,
sober and scraped out, needing
a reason to perform your estocada,
you have become a slow porch song. (89)
What he tells himself can be as bad as anything anyone else puts him through, and so it is with so many of us. The abuse he has taken from the outside world seems to have worked its way into him.
The antidote that he gives us for all of this pain is the magic that he finds from all of the things he loves and has loved. These things have the power to make all he is going through meaningful. “Tuesday Night at the Sober Bar” shows us how difficult sobriety is and also how to work through those difficult times. In the sober bar, there is a meeting, but not an AA meeting:
The Advanced D&D group meets every Sunday!
They’re currently playing the Pink Cloud campaign,
Wherein our heroes have limited immunity!
Or at least it feels like they do!
And in the poem, “Andre the Giant Is Alive and Well and Working at the Circle K on 39th and Penn,” Sturma enters into a fantasy where he can talk to the man so many of us loved and felt that we knew. There are many that focus on the music that he loves. Bob Seger for example features prominently. In “Night Moves (after Bob Seger),” the narrator has to move apartments in the middle of the night, just another humiliation in his life. But this is made more possible and even valiant because he has Seger’s music to give him comfort. He writes of his life to the tune of Seger’s night moves and that gives his life meaning.
While this might have been written by Vonnegut, I think Frankl would approve as well. The psychologist told us that when all else is taken from us what we have left is our attitude, and that we can bring meaning with focus. Head v Heart is an excellent exposition of that concept, and Sturma’s collection brought me with him to many of those places that have brought me joy in my life as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Brantingham is Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park’s first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines and The Best Small Fictions 2016. He has ten books of poetry and fiction including The L.A. Fiction Anthology (Red Hen Press) and A Sublime and Tragic Dance (Cholla Needles Press). He teaches at Mt. San Antonio College. (Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher.)