The risks taken in this book are ones of content, and not of perspective nor of style. There are poems about famous sadomasochists, underaged weed smoking, an Adam's apple fetish, and a killer whom the speaker knew when they were young, all carefully labelled "Perversity," kept away from other sections named "God," "Science," "People," and "Love." It would have been far more provocative to assign the weed to "Science," the fetish to "People," the killer to "God," and the sadomasochists to "Love."
When Kelleher kicks against her version of the poetry establishment, as in the ironic "The Poet Who Will Win This Competition," her parting shot is to say "fuck you," in terza rima. It is as if she wants to be the bad girl of the village, and to be rewarded by the village for it. The village is called American Formalism.
My last remark is rather unkind, and certainly ungrateful, for Kelleher featured me in the "Fetish" issue of Shit Creek Review she guest-edited. But I am led quite unwillingly to that comment, for, when I finished reading the book, I was astonished to realize that I don't care to return to any of the poems. I wonder if Richard Wilbur, who judged the prize, would.
Except for one poem. I would return to it, and have done so many times, reading it with deepening pleasure, more, with deepening consolation. I'm not sure if I can explain why this poem comforts me so profoundly. Unlike the other poems in the collection, it is not self-assured, it is not knowing. I would like to quote it in full because it can only be appreciated in full:
The others stand upright, but not this pine
that thrusts its swayback out over the pond
clawing at noon's face. It started straight,
but here, waist high, it curls around a space
once filled by something bigger than itself.
A sapling then, it grew up in the shade
between a rock, most likely, and a hard place.
Or maybe it was buffeted by winds--
pushing downwards from the north, its stock
still immature--and couldn't stand its ground.
Who knows? Could have been something in the seed
itself, telling it to twist, and crouch, and sniff
at dirty life, unsmitten with the sky;
a skin of algae sometimes broken by
a blacksnake's graceful writhings--harmless things--
and snapping turtles who sunbathe on its limbs.
The poem is not quite sure what to make of this crouching pine, its doubt repeated in "something bigger," "most likely," "maybe," and "Could have been." It is conscious that its explanations are cliched: "between a rock...and a hard place"; "buffeted by winds"; "couldn't stand its ground." Who knows, it asks itself, as it asks the pine. But as speculations spiral round the pine, the tree becomes ever more a tree, just as the blacksnake and the turtles remain themselves at the end of the poem, and not mere symbols. There is nothing obviously beautiful in the poem. In fact, a phrase like "clawing at noon's face" is really quite ugly. And the last line--"snapping turtles who sunbathe on its limbs"--risks bathos, and so is suffused with warmth and light.