The Duke of Double Dactyls
by Julia Griffin
Any Light reader who finds Alex Steelsmith’s website is in for a treat—a double treat—but also a little disappointment. Click on it and you find two sites, linked by an optical illusion: one is labeled WRITER, with the word TSITRA in mirror writing; the other one, vice versa. Of the second, more in a moment. The first one is scientifically enticing. Together with his wife Dr. Laurie Steelsmith, Alex has published three books on naturopathic medicine. With her, and alone, he has published hundreds of articles in this area; they promise increased natural health, even an improved sex life—yes, but it’s all in prose! Where are the brilliant stanzas, the parodies of Frost and of Lear, the unparalleled double dactyls? When I asked Alex about this, he reassured me: “A poetry link is coming to the website.” “That’s great,” I said, not adding: how many Lightists have websites which don’t even mention their verse?
By now you are surely curious about that second, pictorial website. Well, you won’t be surprised, when you look, by its technical brilliance, or, perhaps, by its range, from portraits to landscapes to animals. (My favorites are the Hawaiian lionfish.) As a visual artist, Alex has won many prizes: his work has been displayed in the New Hampshire Institute of Art, the Newport Art Museum, and other galleries; in addition (to quote him), “A disproportionate number … have been seen in various types of healing environments.” And you will probably think, as I did: I hope he’ll illustrate his poems …
Of Alex’s abundant creative work, the poetry has been the last to reach the public. He burst into our world, he confirms, “in about 2017.” Since then, he has published in Lighten Up Online, Snakeskin, Parody (sadly, no longer running), The Washington Post, The Spectator—and, above all, Light. He burst in as a fully-evolved star: his style is polished to a brilliant shine; his technical skill is unsurpassed. This comes (in part) from long practice. Alex had been writing, unpublished, for decades. Asked about his original inspiration, he praises his father and Robert Frost. Steelsmith père, like so many excellent parents, read aloud to his children: “My earliest memory of those readings—when I first became aware that poetry existed—was hearing him read ‘The Exposed Nest.’ I was only about four, but that first line, ‘You were forever finding some new play,’ went through me like a bolt of lightning.” It was, as he says, his “first first line.”
Frost has remained a particular love of his—as evidenced by this glorious rewrite, published in Parody in July 2019:
Whose drone this is I’ll never know.
It’s right outside my window, though.
I’m sure it sees me lying here
In bed and naked head to toe.
My dog is freaked, and makes it clear
The awful thing must disappear.
It’s getting late, for heaven’s sake,
The lightest evening of the year.
He barks and howls without a break.
The only sounds he hears me make
Are words I seldom say, like “(bleep)!”
And now he knows I’m wide awake.
The owner of this drone’s a creep,
But I have shotguns in my keep,
And aim to get a good night’s sleep,
And aim to get a good night’s sleep.
Talking to Alex, I realized that though, to me, his various forms of creativity seem very different, to him they all belong together, and always have. The skill and meticulousness that characterize his poetry are no less evident in his visual art: he is a formalist, a craftsman. He acknowledges his versatility in characteristically modest, witty terms: “Though I had matriculated as a Fine Arts major, I actually majored in minoring (with a minor in majoring) until I eventually became a philosophy major, which was also highly poetry-conducive. Few things stimulate creativity more than exploring famous philosophical paradigms.” Some of those philosophical paradigms have made it into his verse—as, for example, this one, published in Light on March 31st of last year, which combines Schopenhauer with Hindu thought:
Arthur F. Schopenhauer
named his dog Atman—a
touch of arcane
(“Hypocoristical” means “of the nature of a pet-name; pertaining to the habit of using endearing or euphemistic terms.” I did not have to look that up, and nor, I am sure, did you.)
This brings me, at last, to his delectable double dactyls. Over the last year, he has published at least one of these fiendish little items in every single issue of Light’s Poems of the Week, which must surely—certainly—be a record. I would dearly like to know how he does this, but contented myself with asking why. “I’m attracted to double dactyls,” he told me, “partly because they provide a form that their co-inventor John Hollander described as ‘dismally difficult.’ In my early efforts, I had my hands full simply meeting all the requirements and making any sense at all. As I began to feel more at ease writing them, I made it my goal to add an ’extra‘ little challenge—some bonus joke, play on words, or double entendre—to their other requirements.”
Today he has few equals, if any, as a dactylist. For an example of a “bonus joke,” consider “Her Eminence,” one of the poems chosen for this feature. Emily Dickinson must be the double dactylist’s favorite subject (she is to that form what Edna St. Vincent Millay is to the limerick), but probably none but Alex has ever connected her name with her characteristic punctuation—the em dash. And all with that ductile panache.
Alex’s double dactyls tend to be biographical (it’s in the nature of the form), and many of his subjects are public figures, but he is not as directly political as many writers for Light. Asked about this, he was modest, as ever: “I aspire to be as inclusive as possible in reaching a wide range of topics. I wouldn’t want to dictate didactically (or, as a nonsense poet might add, dactate didictically), much less dactylically.” If I would want anyone to dictate, or duct-tape, dactylically, it would most certainly be Alex—but I take his point.
One of the things he loves about the double dactyl is its nonsensical first line: “a stroke of genius,” he says, “because it more or less prevents you from taking seriously anything that follows.” Of course he took that as a challenge, which he beat—his Prokofiev poem (in the feature) starts, “Mystery mastery,” forcing the chirpy sonics into sense. But he likes nonsense lines, as his engagements with Lear make plain. “Some of the most fun forms of creativity draw from stages in our early development when we engaged in endless play but couldn’t yet formulate topical opinions.”
“Endless play” recalls the phrase of Frost’s that he loved as a four-year-old: “You were forever finding some new play.” That word clearly resonates deeply with Alex. Perhaps the secret to his extraordinary creativity—the range of his subjects as a poet, the range of his talents as a creative artist—is that sense of play, of the fun of taking on technical challenges and winning. As I visualize Schopenhauer’s hypocoristical Atman, I see, swimming behind him, two beautiful Hawaiian lionfish, their sharp edges transformed into brightness and elegance. Before letting Alex go, I try pushing the idea again of illustrating a poetry collection. “I’ve illustrated poems on occasion in the past,” he replies, encouragingly, “though I’m more likely to write poems that ’illustrate‘ subjects I’ve painted.” So perhaps some piscine double dactyls might be on the way.
But of all the artworks on Alex’s website—one percent of his total oeuvre, he says—the one that lingers in my mind is the exquisite scratchboard drawing of his young nephew, aged, as it seems, about four, who looks up and away from the viewer, his face lit up. The title of the picture is “Wonder,” and I suspect he has just heard a poem by Robert Frost.
Wonders can come from that.