30 November 2009

From a Burning Building by Kerry O'Keefe

From a Burning Building by Kerry O’ Keefe
March Street Press, 2005. 25 pages.

Reviewed by P. Nelson

I’ve never met an extended metaphor I liked, especially my own, as the device stretches easily to Cutetitude and the shallow reaches of self congratulation. This said, it is an old and not very bold image—the poem as plane. Frequent poetic flyers, we’ve all been on board the relentlessly ground bound object that rolls down the runway and never takes off. When what we want is transport - velocity, lift off and flight. Uncommonly, one encounters poems already airborne, your awareness coeval with their instantly at altitude attitude, a craft that has already passed several thresholds of thrust (V1, V2) and is immediately in its ideal poetic element, which is Ariel’s. The best poems in Kerry O’Keefe’s chapbook “From a Burning Building” are of this type. Winter grass cracking under their shoes/ as they stand and look at the eight-paned/ window that blew off the house last fall./ The squirrels now able to scratch through/to the garbage on the porch …/ Their children throw a ball back and forth, not used / to seeing him there in the yard. The man and woman/ navigate all the familiar distances, less urgent.— from “Ex-Husband Comes to Pick Up Ladders”. 

The topics are the usual destinations-estrangement, divorce, death, the consolations of children and new love. Yes, we’ve all been here and for good reason; these are the hubs of the human heart. The day you learn the terrifying difference in the air/between the sound of a man quiet in another room,/ and one who has gone… Left to barter with pictures and helpless pets. / For a few weeks, the smell of the food you cooked./The fading world of the bed. Cigarette ashes left / for a while, then everything clean. The way, for years,/ you confuse each new, beautiful thing you encounter/with the casual habit of a weak and oblivious god. --- from “Worst Fear” Such poems are not necessarily reliant on an exoskeleton of linked imagery (the best mechanical means for making Post-Metrical poetry). Rather, they occur within an epistic framework of testimony (lest this seem critically gratuitous, consider some alternatives: the meditative, the dramatic, the dialectical, the pastoral, etc...) where images aren’t so much produced and laid out as appearing and surfacing; imminent but determinate .(And this not to diminish the conscious artistry of such a method where judgment must be deployed at its extremist verge). 

Maybe I’m talking out of my critical hat, believe me, more Emmett Kelly’s than Adam Verver’s but consider the uncanny sequencing of A sense of what is foreign./The leaves breaking. The hills/weighted down with guilt over /the yearly lewd display. Still/only able to do what they know./Endless reaches of geese/trying to look brave in their dissembling.// A lone traveler/trying to reach the gate before/ the plane takes off….the season left behind for all/of its reasons … a passage that convinces us way before (yet literarily after) the convicting title “Before Signing the Papers.” In a sense the poetry seems co-generated by a dually operative containment vessel consisting of an intense outward thrust to express surrounded by a constricting force, pressurizing the internal matter (or as the poet better puts it-“‘Let the unspeakable weight against the pleasure of a song, isn’t that how it is every day?’). When this pressure lessens, as this reader believes it does in the more “positive” poems about children and new friends, the lines flatten out, lacking, as I take it, a recombinant genesis that is strictly linguistic. You could call this ambient force “history” or “Truth”, the seemingly more endurant element of Keats’ famous compound. It is Truth, in the conveyance of Poetry, that elevates these poems from the low lying arbitrations of so much chapbook verse and that makes this propellant little book worth reading. Which is what, to begin with, we booked the flight for. 
And speaking of containment vessels, the March Street Press of Greensboro N.C. has produced an exemplary chapbook of the nonletter press variety, one right sized for the hands, with careful typography and layout including that rara avis of contemporary publishing- the chaste, alluring plumage of a title page properly set.