…A name is so much harder to remember
than a face, a face is so much language compressed. “A Remainder” by Michael Collier
A couple years ago, I was wandering through a second-hand shop, stalking their bookshelves, and looking for something to catch my eyes. I can’t remember if I picked any of them to take home with me, but I remember taking in an interaction between a young father and younger daughter. She was maybe, three or four, and he couldn’t have been in his 30s, and I remember telling her she had the best seat in the house because she was sitting atop her father’s shoulders, surveying the world about her with such wild mysticism. She picked up, unknowingly, a roll of film and asked “What’s this?” and her father said “Somebody else’s memories.” And I was fascinated by that interaction because it was said with such matter-of-factness, the little girl put the roll of film down and a wave of redness came to her cheeks. I don’t know if she was embarrassed or felt like she did something wrong. Soon enough though, she was giggling. I think of that a lot, but until I read Devin Kelly and Cooper Wilhelm, I hadn’t found much connection to that memory and poetry.
In holding poems by Devin Kelly and Cooper Wilhelm, I feel like I am holding a roll of film, and in turn, holding somebody else’s memories. In writing this review, I re-read an essay published by The Poetry Foundation where Kwame Dawes spoke to teaching a Creative Writing class for upperclassman medical students. It was a fascinating read about poetic vulnerability and connecting with others through words. Near the essay’s close, Dawes has this to say:
Now I don’t believe that all poetry must expose us in the manner of confessional verse, but I happen to think that a poem’s strength must involve some kind of risk, something that makes the poem urgent. And yes, I think that the poem should reveal us in some way. … That is the poetry, I believe, that arrests me, that stays with me and haunts me for a long time.
For me, this quote speaks to the overwhelming success of Kelly and Wilhelm, they provide language to varying narratives which have helped me make sense of the varying narratives of my life. But, truthfully, the more I think I understand poetry, the less I actually know certainty. I know that I am not the only one who feels this way. But, for me, it might have to do with my fear of definitives or my father’s avoidance of absolutes. It might have to do with the everlasting desire to keep learning or because I think there are people who say things with more beauty and eloquence than I can articulate. In reading Kelly and Wilhelm, I was overcome with emotions, and, returning to the roll of film, the imagery in In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017) and Dumbheart/Stupidface (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017) is calculated, but the impassioned articulation of emotion channeled something within me. In the briefest of explanations, reading these collections made me feel as though I have known Kelly and Wilhelm since childhood. I felt their connective forces within me and, damn, I will save its electricity when things get dark.
The first poem I want to discuss in Devin Kelly’s collection was originally published in the dreamy journal BOAAT: “Reasons to Quit”. The poem opens with the speaker switching seats and “pops thumb[ing] the knob/and turn[ing] through the songs of Willie Nelson.” Like the poet himself, Kelly’s poems are musically inclined both with their language and the allusions as well. However, the musicality shifts immediately with the sternness of the next line: “He never promised to leave me anything.” As the poem progresses, we learn the speaker and pops are searching for mom who is “out there//somewhere”. I bring out the exactness of Kelly’s language because of the speaker’s matter-of-factness, perhaps even resignation, at trying to understand the complexity of what’s going on around him. Sharing in this vulnerability, it feels as though we are in the backseat of the car, surveying the scene with him. The magnification of this vulnerability occurs at the poem’s close:
You see now why I can’t stand
the thought of losing anything.
It was too much fun before the sorrow
came. By the time we find her, it’s almost
morning, and everything is so close
to being illuminated, and so close to being gone.
This poem, in the beginning of the book, sets the scene for the entire collection because it reveals the tenderness that makes Kelly’s poetry so endearing, so entrapping. This entrapment is not an act of deception, rather it is the act of a human who longs to connect with another fellow human—yes, the reader—but, more importantly to the speaker, the mother. When I first read this poem, my hands were trembling, and when I read the last line, I couldn’t help but think of Louise Glück’s poetry. Specifically Ararat (Ecco Press, 1990) and even more specifically, the poem “Terminal Resemblance”. The poem’s central image is a hand waving, trembling, trying to understand the complexity of why people we love, specifically parental figures, leave. To reveal himself at this darkening time in his life, Kelly illustrates the one of the great successes of his poetry: longing and connecting. The duality of illumination being gone articulates the ebb and flow of life, but also the emotional swing that Kelly is able to evoke. It’s brave, it’s difficult, but as a result, I couldn’t help but love this poem and couldn’t help but love Kelly for this expression of vulnerability.
By sharing this vulnerability, to paraphrase Dawes, Kelly’s poetry stays with me and haunts me. One of Kelly’s poems that has had the most staying power for me is “Enough” which I proudly have hanging on my wall. The poem opens with prayer and, once again, illustrates the father figure. Kelly writes “You pray tonight the moon’s shine will shimmer candlewick & melt light across your floorboards, that your father will not die of a pain to hollow out his bones…” The light from the moon and candle serve as a spotlight on the father-son relationship. The poem continues with such vibrancy of language which allows the light to come in as Kelly describes the dawn’s arrival: “…sometimes gold, sometimes carrying yesterday’s blood back from around the world…” But similarly to “Reasons to Quit”, the poem conveys a bit of doubt, a bit of un-exactness. Or maybe it illustrates strength in acceptance, the question Kelly’s speaker provides us in the middle of the poem: It’s enough, isn’t it? I hope my oscillation between the two paths of this poem does not deter you because, frankly, the poem illustrates Kelly’s strength of enabling the reader to feel a duplicity of emotion, a skill I believe is wielded by Kelly’s other chief strength: vulnerability. Still, despite what the world does to make you know your smallness, Kelly is able to hold onto who is held close by (his father) and what he is held by (“the soft miracle of kissing”). This illustration of gentleness and humanness is a testament to Kelly’s writing ability. As I transition to Cooper Wilhelm’s Dumbheart/Stupidface, I was also held by the collection’s ability to use vulnerability as strength and as lure to the readers to connect with the poems and poet himself.
Cooper Wilhelm, as per his author’s website, is a poet, researcher, and occultist living in New York City and I was introduced to his work courtesy of the poem “Summations End” which was published a couple years ago in Yes, Poetry. Before getting ahold of Wilhelm’s book itself, I remember that poem because of the following line: Instead the good lord lets us think/there are things that we can keep, even the immortal terror of being seen. I think this line is important for the confines of Wilhelm’s poetry because 1) “the immortal terror of being seen” is a lovely phrase but 2) there’s energy behind these words that pulled me in like a conveyer belt. Referring back to the electricity I mentioned earlier, it brightened my intrigue in Wilhelm’s words and to see him put out a collection such as Dumbheart/Stupidface showcases what blurb writer Peter Gizzi offers: “It has all the intensity and bravado youth can muster, it hits hard.”
One of the poems that best embodies the intensity and bravado of Gizzi’s commentary is titled “Slept Through” because it fuses together youth and aging through its language and narrative. The words serve, almost as a curator at a museum, to illustrate the imagery laid in front of the reader’s eyes. The poem is quick to shift places, both physical and mental, to share “…maybe there are some secrets/my brain will keep,/ in talking about it now I suddenly remember a wooden/dock,/warm pond water”. The lack of punctuation here helps to accelerate the memory and narrative, while also providing readers with an image, a vantage point in the shape of a dock, to see what Wilhelm’s speaker is seeing. And once we get that image, we also get another revealing image from the speaker: “…the cracked,/yellow toenails of my uncle who is dead./Which is to say my uncle is gone, which is/to say my uncle/who never existed…” By wavering through the poem through the repetition of which is Wilhelm is able to illustrate the complication of processing. The maneuver is calculated and thoughtful even though it demonstrates such vulnerability. It eventually gets to the point where the poem, the poet, the speaker all at once states Enough distraction. That part of the poem marks a power shift which, almost like a compass, shows us the intended direction of the poem after all:
Three ropes tethered the neck and wrists of my uncle to a tree
while his brothers pulled at his ankles as at fishing nets
trying to heal his back.
Kids only understand the medicine of pain,
how a success of suffering
gets it over with…
To show the grotesque nature of healing, to illustrate the attempted processing of it all, Wilhelm successfully conveys poetic vulnerability. To pull something, someone, as at fishing nets we see the necessity of this action, the need behind it all, and even though it is painful, it is done with the intention of healing. And I think that is why Wilhelm’s poetry provides such meaning to me—it shows hurt and pain, intensity and bravado, in an effort to connect. And connect it does.
I was six years old when I was bewildered by the home run-hitting titans of baseball. The Summer of 1998. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr., and, lesser-known, Greg Vaughn. Between the four of them, they hit 242 home runs which were more home runs than the league-leading Seattle Mariners team-combined total of 234! As a child starting to play baseball or, more accurately, in the dirt, I was stunned. It was unbelievable. My love of baseball was born.
(Note: Even with the knowledge of PEDs and corked bats, I still hold onto the memory of that summer so reverently.)
I was ten years old when my uncle introduced me to “Mother” by John Lennon which was off the 1970 album John Lennon/Plastic Ono. My uncle had the album on vinyl and thought I was ready to listen to “real music” as he called it. I was struck by the complicated emotions of betrayal and disappointment yet haunted by the simplistic straight-forwardness of Lennon’s lyrics.
I was seventeen when I watched the George Gallo film Local Color (2006) for the first time. My therapist gave it to me as a gift to remind me that beauty exists, even though there is still ugliness. The film is about a coming-of-age artist trying to find belonging in an often thankless home life and art form. It’s a movie about heroes, art, but, as the film states often, love.
I bring these memories up because in reading Devin Kelly’s In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (CCM Press, 2017) and Cooper Wilhelm’s Dumbheart/Stupidface (CCM Press, 2017) I have to remember I only have the opportunity for a first read once and, in reading the collections, I found myself feeling those same emotions I had when introduced to something life-changing. I don’t use that term lightly as both collections tap into a line from Dean Young’s poem “Commencement Address”: I love you for shattering./Someone has to. So dearest Devin and Cooper, please know I love you both for shattering and sharing the light that reflects off the shards.
An eternally grateful human.
Grab your copies of these books both from CCM!