A few days into the vacation, and things are drifting along nicely. I haven’t gotten done quite as much as I’d like, but I’m trying not to beat myself up about it: just as important as the daily writing/reading I want to do is the daily time to do Absolutely Nothing. Seriously, there have been a couple points where I just lay there not moving, almost like one of these “nap” things I’ve heard about, except I think you have to be asleep for those. But at least I’ve done one draft per day so far, and seen groups of family/friends as well, which is nice. The late morning Starbucks crew has become very familiar with my presence.
So, on the train home, I finally had the wherewithal to get through the rest of Collin Kelley’s collection Render, which I picked up at the Rainbow Book Fair and have been too busy to just finish. (You may have seen one of the poems from this collection on Verse Daily a month ago, “To Margot Kidder, With Love”, a poem that I think typifies the book.) Collin himself is also very pleasant in person (and was kind enough to sign my book!), as well as a prolific Tweeter, holding monthly “poet parties”. You can check out his blog here: http://collinkelley.blogspot.com/.
I mentioned before (I think when talking about Jessie Carty’s chapbook, An Amateur Marriage) that it can be a challenge for the poet to carry over a particular point of view to the reader. There are confessional poems, dialogic poems, nature poems, universal poems, each of which pushes further and further out from the first person, and to relate intense, specific personal experiences in a compelling fashion can be much harder than making sweeping statements about the cosmos. Render rides (sometimes openly, sometimes coyly) on an extended metaphor of snapshots from the author’s life, starting not long after birth and carrying right up to the present. But many of the poems (I’d say the majority; I haven’t counted up) weave pop culture and geography particular to a time and place into the biography, creating a necklace of touchstones that different readers will react to. The casual references to World’s Fairs, Blondie, and Steel Magnolias are all historical reference to me, and some like Helen Keller’s house or Antietam are historical to everybody; but Star Wars, Star Trek, and Hanna-Barbera are timeless. The book is rich with an entire vocabulary of wholly American allusion, from “Zapruder-style” to “JC Penney knock-offs”; I doubt any one reader will have the exact same nostalgic resonance with the proper noun buffet.
It’s an interesting conceit that lends uniqueness to the author’s voice, but blended with that are situations and themes which are wholly familiar like discovering sexuality, parental friction, and family road trips. (I enjoyed the Civil War references peppered throughout, because I remember well when we drove out to Gettysburg when I was a kid. I thought it was just about the most boring thing I’d ever done.) The effect is what you would expect from a chain of snapshots arranged on a darkroom line: each square holds a few bits of information that are apparent or easily deduced, but it takes the subject (and/or photographer) to give the proper context that we can all relate to. Kelley also is fantastically raw and open about his past, in a way that, if it’s invented at all, does not sound forced or embellished, and doesn’t make the reader feel like a voyeur. It takes a great deal of courage to admit to locker-room goings-on, and a bold self-awareness to reconstruct and analyze memories of a mother’s affair, or beginning to take on gay identity. Too many poets (guilty!) veil their admissions with impenetrable metaphors.
What distinguishes this book from “confessional” poetry is the tone, in my opinion: there are no coming-to-grips moments or re-discovering trauma that you see in therapy poetry. The author has no illusions about the past, and is thoughtful with his analysis of its effects on him. A helpful trick for writing poems of this sort might be to try replacing “I” with “you” or “s/he”, to see whether the autobiographical has the same power when applied like a sticker to the reader, or some absent person. It’s a balancing act: you don’t want to be unfaithful to the stories you’re trying to tell, but you also don’t want to get so caught up in your own experience of them that they become impossible to relate to in the way you’d like the reader to. The poet must be a chameleon: subtle, even mythological, able to change colors and patterns to suit the observer, but still ultimately a lizard. Render is instructive to the poet who wishes to find that balance. The poem about visiting Helen Keller’s house features see-saws as a metaphor, and I’d carry that over into the process of crafting each Polaroid poem of this sort: on the one side, you must remain wholly yourself. On the other, you stack details (the pop culture references, the historical timeline framework, the hints of teasing apart an event to get to its emotional core) until you reach equilibrium. Of course not every poem will succeed in this, but when you average them out — and this applies to Render — the whole becomes a clear portrait.
Overall, the book reminds me of one of those portraits of faces that is made up of other, miniature portraits of faces. And I could talk further about the whole construct, but I want to share snippets from what are probably my three favorite components of the collection:
“She likes long hauls, seeing the world, while my mother turns bitter and adulterous, no sizzle in the bacon my father brings home. I stay up all night to watch Blondie on the Midnight Special, learn Debbie’s shawl dance with a ripped bed sheet, purloined heels, face smeared with lipstick, sucking a candy cigarette, Mother’s whereabouts unknown.”
– “Parallel Lines”
“Before you made me a witch,
got forced in the basement to pray,
your mother stripping you, whipping you
with a belt in those sure Jesus strokes,
you kissed me once in the backseat,
crouched low, out of my dad’s line of sight
in the rearview mirror.”
“I say, cut the parlor tricks, Mary.
If you want a little respect, come flaming
out of the sky on a thunder cloud,
ride it like a magic carpet over Middle America…”
– “The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass”
I think there’s a great deal of Whitman-heritage in the book to be admired: there is an honest, American, passionate voice ringing through the pages. If you’re a fan of that poetry which captures the everyday cultural, the immediately historical, and the familiar emotional, you ought to enjoy this one. Do get thee over to Sibling Rivalry Press and acquire yourself a copy, if my chat about the collection has inspired you enough. And then come back in the near future! I’ve been reading a furious pace, and I’m eager to share, you guys.