Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rose Kelleher's "Bundle o' Tinder"

Rose Kelleher's debut, the winner of the 2007 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, is full of familiar pleasures. The precise observation of "Rays at Cape Hatteras." The witty image of "Mortimer." The sharp social satire in "Hybrid." The reformulation of myth in "The First Uprising." The formal inventiveness of the exploded sestina "Random Sextet." The musical punch-line in "Neanderthal Bone Flute." The carefully served-up poignancy of "The Rectangle."

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.


Shropshirelad said...

I have to say, I think I liked Neanderthal Bone Flute the best of the poems.

Kink seemed a little silly to me. It needs something sinister beneath the surface. The speculations don't make it sinister enough. They are fairly standard sociological observations made arboreal.

A bald doll or deflated basketball or something bumping into the log would have made it work. It would have given the pine, the pond--the entire world of the poem--some mystery. One tiny, tangential human element as a point of contrast.

It is a good poem that might have been profoundly perverse.

Jee Leong Koh said...

GH made what I thought was an astute observation when I showed him "Neanderthal Bone Flute." He pointed out that the poem imposes its own ideas of love on the Neanderthals. Why do we have to make everyone else like us? What I admire about "Kink" is its preservation of the tree as a tree. The standard sociological observations are just what they are.

Shropshirelad said...

I am not sure I see the problem with imposing our Cro-Magnon values of love on Neanderthals since there is genetic evidence that we did interbreed with them.

So, in some very real sense, we must have liked each other, at least a little, and those desires multiplied into successful offspring.

I read an article in The Daily Telegraph about this discovery in the last couple of years, and I think this is where the poem came from.

Jee Leong Koh said...

I read "Ignore the new genetic tests that say/ the girl rejected him" to mean the two did not interbreed. Which makes sense in the poem (even if it contradicts scientific evidence), since "his ways and ours were not the same." Why wish for the bone to be a flute, if it is a flute?

Eshuneutics said...

I find the poem rather unstartling.
Technically, it reads like not very good blank verse. I'm not sure if the cliche is supposed to give an ironical perspective or what. I can see how "clawing at noon's face" works as a visual image of a pine...but it's not a very demanding image--which would be my view of this poem: undemanding.

Shropshirelad said...

I read the line about rejection as rape. Otherwise the genetic material would not have shown up in DNA tests today.

I believe this reading is consistent with the science and the internal logic of the poem...