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Levi Rubeck

By this point in his career Kevin Young is an old hand at the psychic restoration of outside source material. His books, including Jelly Roll, To Repel Ghosts, and Black Maria, have each found something lyrical in the dry air of various historical and cultural archives while maintaining a crucial link to his own personal experience and sense of family. This is key to the work in Ardency because it’s his least personal book so far, but in many ways that allows him to approach those same emotions within the book’s historical characters from a more objective stance. Kevin Young rehydrates history with the often impenetrable abstract motivations of humanity, those emotions both feral and civil that run through us all.

Those human characters, and their voices, are the cornerstone of Ardency. This epic embodies in verse their experience as men, boys, and girls kidnapped from the paths winding through their home country of Sierra Leone, illegally (as opposed to amorally) sold into slavery in Cuba, who then rebelled on their ship and attempted to sail east to Africa only to find that they were being misdirected towards New York at night, where they were tried, and with the intervention of abolitionists and a president, set free. But that’s all the testable material.

For everything past the introduction, Kevin is filling in the cracks and doing so with warmth, music, and brevity (only a handful poems last longer than a page). Headlines, locations, and names are bandied about to serve the poem and its multi-dimensional enterprise:

__________________The whole country flocks
to watch you at play, a flea circus somersetting
the prison Green. Warden claims the proceeds
for your bail & newspaper reviews of jail
go well:—They crouch like tailors, teeth like stars
in inky faces, black headlines blare. No one dares
how you still may be sold, stolen like a scene.

[from “Blackmarket”]

The language is somersetting around itself, becoming the textual embodiment of the circus while we read aghast as twenty-first century ignoramuses of this experience. We read “black headlines blare” and trip over the subtext but it’s all part of the spectacle that the poem reenacts so concisely. Reenactment is a fair approximation of what this poetry accomplishes, as something beyond reportage but free of the budgetary and chronological constraints of cinema but fully immersed in the drama of experience. From “Testimony”:

You call us rebels____we were spoons
in that ship for so long____the wood
dark, drowned as the men who
made it from song____sold on land
like ships____like us____christened
out of water

This is the type of historical document that should be read, taught, and discussed from classrooms K through Ph.D. Kevin is so clearly integrated with the tools of poetry that even first time readers can sense the distance it keeps from fiction, what is conveyed through an image of men spooned together at the bottom of the ship as literal cargo surpasses statistical analysis. This book comes closest to the actual experience on the Amistad, and more importantly, afterwards.

The strength of the first two sections is such that the third, “Witness”, initially left me gasping in their wake. “Witness” is the majority of the book and is definitively elegant. But where “Buzzard” and “Correspondance” teem with character, setting, and energy, “Witness” gives a slight advantage to quantity over quality.

I frequently found myself wondering if I’d read this poem or that poem earlier in the manuscript, wondering where the fervor went. No single poem is bad, each carries the same weight, but by the end that weight begins to feel repetitive. “Witness” pulls down on the eyes and the mind. Which might not be a terrible thing: it’s easy to breeze through some poems about the hardships undergone by these rebels, get a sense of their misfortune, then throw a movie on or step out for some falafel. Elements of song are interspersed with the single eyewitness account of Cinque, leader of the rebellion. But it’s hard to determine Cinque’s character, especially after the captivating montage of the first two sections.

My mind
were winter.

Never
did I know

that word
till Merica—

then, learned it
was white

and silent and covered
even the trees.

__________Steal Away.

Inside my cell
snow.

[…]

There neither do lions
speak, nor preach

till the sand beneath
the sea shifts

and swallows—
till the waves

erase the names.

[from “Tabernacle”]

By the time we hear this poem Cinque feels less like a man and more like an amalgamation of suffering, endurance, and trial. Job is the easy comparison, which may be why these poems initially felt so thin to me. But upon second consideration, “Witness” is more than just viewing. It makes the reader the witness, emotionally enduring the same tolls heaped upon Cinque and his fellow rebels. Names are erased, everything is left cold and silent, the mere adoption of the language and religion of the West is enough to obliterate these rebels. Which is sort of how I felt after reading this section, a sense of obliteration, exhaustion, but a need to carry on.

The themes of cold and snow, this new world Merica, and home bounce around “Witness” in constant rotation. This mimics the thought of a captive, someone kidnapped from their home and forced through horrific ideals, someone who has to find something to hold onto mentally in order to maintain some level of sanity. A 240-page historical epic poem already carries the potential for exhaustion, but perhaps this last section is meant to be more meditative. Like overwhelming the trees with silence, or the tides that erase the names of the dead, the trauma of witness can overwhelm the human psyche, and perhaps this is the feeling I approach when reading through the section.

Despite my first impression, the impact of “Witness” has caused me to more deeply ponder the effects of this history on Kevin Young and the readers of Ardency. I may not have felt as much throughout reading it, but I can hardly flip to a page without finding the nuance and pace of the first two sections working in a similar way, albeit one that must simmer. While I still feel that those poems of “Witness” don’t quite shine as individually as the ones of the first two sections (and the final “Afterword”), the bulk of its reading is subliminally affective, which may be closer to the truth of these rebel’s experiences than any proclamation.

Ultimately, Ardency is a poised, fantastic collection that I can’t wait to share with my students. In terms of documentary poetics and its potential, this book is quite fitting as another feather in Kevin Young’s cap.

James Copeland is a tall man, who rides a tall bike, drinks tall drinks, and writes tall poetry. To My Plants is a tallish, stiff chapbook of words arranged by James, printed on cellulose by James, and containing a DVD of a short film shot by a friend of James, from which the still photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook originate. The cover is two-sided, both unassuming, without any words to indicate title or author. You get clouds and mountainous valleys at first glance, but the sleuthy reader will check under the flap and be delighted, or maybe teased, with a string of automobiles as silent as any natural wonder.

You’re right, I’m stalling, but only because To My Plants already says everything that needs to be said about itself. It’s a book that delights in a cat-like batting about of your preconceptions: Plants, oh, James is a hippie, or: “Science arises from the green and yellow star, / ready for panoramas, radiant with facts”, oh, James thinks he’s smarter than me. Which is where he gets you, feeding us lines we think we get (or don’t) but seconds later instinctively reconsider. It isn’t slippery so much as twisting, squirming, revolting, linguistic revolutions around the star that bore us.

Plants and science greet us throughout this slim book/tall poem. The long lines mirror time’s inconstant rhythms (despite what the atom says) and throws everything into transition.  The “Children, too, are present, looking at their final bowls of cereal / before being called into service.” From plant to paper, child to servant (soldier? cubicle drone? janitor?), things are shifting throughout. Mountains are unsettled, lions act like men, “The sunlight washes over the mustard on the man’s fingers / like the visions of violent wealth that wash over the young girl’s sleep.” There’s our yellow and green star again.

But if everything is moving, where is it going? Even random paths, viewed from far enough out, can’t help but cough up a pattern. To My Plants offers the returning lion, which may be us, unless we are the plants, or the men and women, or maybe the “dollop of carbon”  left on the fingertip. There are animals, and plants, both are carbon-based and can’t help but be. We can’t help ourselves, “We are part of the ocean, the gorge, we lurch into the surrounding smell / to know nothing except volume.”

There is hardly an “I” to be found in this book amidst the swirling patrons of planet Earth, but James slips, shows us that he is human, that “Like anyone else, he enjoys the feeling of corn syrup running down his forearms. / And by enjoy, I mean he swears by it.” We are what we enjoy, even if, at this point, that enjoyment is bringing the whole works down. James is no prophet but his poetry is a telescope turned on this place we call home. Sitting on this messy, throbbing rock, overrun with planets and animals, James gives us the pattern in one fell poem. Would that we may learn something about ourselves by it.

Back Camera

A tenth grade student of mine recently commented that he felt anaphora to be a crutch weaker writers use. He didn’t see the point of repeating a word or phrase over and over again, especially if he didn’t agree with that word overall. I couldn’t really agree with him out loud since the entire lesson was built around anaphora, but I didn’t exactly disagree either. Like most poetic devices, anaphora’s strength lies in how its use draws something out of the writer that she might not have otherwise have drawn.

In that way I can see how something like anaphora can be seen as a crutch, a way to trick one’s self into writing because they have nothing to write about. Of course, to a young writer like this student, with so much to say about his world, the idea that someone might need to be self-coaxed into introspection might be incomprehensible.

But that seems to be exactly where Jen Bervin is coming from with The Silver Book, which the imperative anaphora of “write” followed by the exact instructions of what is to be written. The word changes color throughout the chapbook, shifting through commands that range from command to plea to sigh, engaging every permutation of what it means to write—to communicate through the written word.

write to get lost in the day — get
the time from friends — make them a
memorable meal and forget what you made
— write – we are tasting new peaches
— all the time —write you waste
nothing — write nothing is wasted on
you —

This poem appears early in the book, and while the others range in size not much else shifts formally. But within each word and phrase the reader is slipping, getting pulled by the current of the river that the paper wrapping this book originally was meant to mimic. It’s imperative how the dashes and the shifting commands and focus of each statement keep the reader constantly balancing out her sea legs, finding the center of each line only to get bumped by the next. And while there’s a constant need to re-stabilize, I never felt cast off.

The Silver Book is small, post-Emily, elusive, and playful, which is a lot for such a tiny chapbook. It’s the kind of thing that chapbooks are meant to be. Ephemeral, almost spirit-like, this book can be read in under 15 minutes if one rushes or pondered for days and cannot be fully appreciated on a Kindle or as a pdf. It’s affordable art from a talented writer and phenomenal artist book maker, and perhaps could even change some minds about the use of anaphora.

At a recent Poet’s House reading, Demosthenes Agrafiotis had some harsh things to say about haiku written in English. They fail not only because English can’t possibly pack as much information into a syllable as Japanese does, but the form itself is tied to a cultural imperative, a way of thought that one learns for so long that to even ponder how it works unravels the meaning.

That said, Brian Kalkbrenner’s Foul Feelings is the closest thing in English, spiritually, to haiku that I can possibly think of.  Sure, the poems are pithy and zazen, which is an easy link to the Japanese form. But these often tiny poems are ponderously gargantuan. Brian is a modern western ronin, wandering the new nature of urban living (as urbanized development has taken the majority of the Earth’s surface, it might as well be the modern rendering of nature) and living the poet’s path, sharpening his pen and honing his skills.

Such a road is not easily traveled, and to compound his difficulties, Brian has chosen to commit poetry seppuku by self-publishing Foul Feelings. How is self-publishing like slicing open one’s belly in disgrace? Samurai committed ritual sacrifice for many reasons large and small, but I believe that Brian has chosen to publish this book himself and therefore alienate the work from a large segment of the larger (read: academic) poetry world because that world has gone from focusing on art to focusing on the numbers, specifically the number of dollars given as prizes, scholarships, fellowships, etc.

You might as well save your Stegner application fee and invest in some Mega-Millions tickets because you have about the same chances of winning either. And even if you do make it, what guarantee is there that you will be a better writer, let alone a “successful” one? Brian bypasses the lottery of modern poetic politics, instead choosing to release these poems of their own volition. One would realistically consider this a grave mistake, given the stigma against self-publishing, if not for two things: the poems are sharp enough to parse atoms, and no journal would ever accept them. Brian had no choice but to climb the mountain and meditate on his craft.

It’s hard to talk about these lines without giving anything away, though there isn’t really much to give away. They are mostly small, ranging from seven words to paragraph-length prose poems. Not all of them are philosophical but neither are they simple narratives. They’re surreal in the way that you are given two things that don’t exactly connect logically but don’t exactly disconnect either; they are reflections from a broken mirror. Any meaning pulled from the lines are refracted through the reader.

Not that Brian is only writing about the big pictures here. In fact, that’s what makes these poems so haiku-like in the first place: modern life is explicated through the small moments, images, and thoughts of everyday life and everyday language. That same daily word choice, the common words we all utilize hourly, transformed like sand into glass by Brian’s capable hands. That’s the strength behind Foul Feelings and poetry at large, the way it can take something we thought we new and twist it into new meaning. Any publisher would be honored to have Brian in their ranks, but perhaps it would be best for us if he continued to walk the way of the warrior-poet.