Flowers, by Paul Killebrew (Canarium Books, 2010)
Like the seventies version of John Ashbery, Paul Killebrew’s Flowers moves between qualified joy and resigned sadness—and through most of the shades of anxiety and ennui in between. There are other similarities as well: the expansiveness of familiar or quotidian details and imagery held together by a fluid and elastic voice; subtle non sequiturs that somehow immerse us emotionally and psychologically into the poetry. Flowers even ends, like many of Ashbery’s best books, with a long poem. To my mind, Killebrew’s book is one of the most confident poetry debuts since Dorothea Lasky’s Awe in 2007.
Connections between the younger and older poet threaten to be rendered superfluous when beholding, on page 10, Killebrew’s poem “John Fucking Ashbery.” The poem itself is a sly and sincere ode, but also a notice to readers that yes Killebrew does fucking love John Ashbery and is even rather influenced by him. This kind of influence—inspiring and productive rather than derivative—makes me think of the paintings of Jenny Saville, which, with their fleshy color palette, chunky application of paint, and candid focus on a singular, often nude, subject, naturally bring to mind the paintings of Lucian Freud. Saville is clearly influenced by Freud’s techniques and subject matter, but the confidence of her work, as well as her incisive emotional involvement, makes her paintings her own.
A common practice of Killebrew’s poetry is to use an insinuating, almost headlong momentum to coalesce divergent elements of narrative and reference, as in the beginning of “Cartons”:
A thin strip of the present swipes through our eyes
and stops for a careless pause while clouds
funnel through spires like traffic or shadows
of a folding instrument making complicated maps
across a carved wooden relief of a shopping cart
left by a fastidious planner in a fit of preservation
while his baby wailed in the next room for the squares
in the dim field above him to stop melting
into black cabbages. He trailed off
before the end of the chorus, leaving the rest of the singers
confused and thinking they lost their places
before the waiter brought out a couple more chairs
and everyone looked around to triangulate a position
for what surely would be a tedious salad.
Some poets double down on the aesthetic of the repeated word. Here Killebrew does not (except for articles and prepositions), choosing instead to offer cameos to “clouds,” “traffic,” “a fastidious planner,” “black cabbages,” and more. This gives the poem’s opening an appealingly inclusive and egalitarian spirit. Words do not repeat, but the non sequiturs pile up. The second sentence (beginning with “He trailed off . . .”) moves in such a way that one clause does not logically follow the next outside the world of the poem. Though there is of course nothing new about these techniques, a clue to what Killebrew is up to comes from two words that are used twice—“while” and “before.” These two words of temporal location give the lines a forward movement that allows the conversational rhythms of the poem (and Killebrew’s poetry in general) to take on emotional and psychological depth.
The poems in Flowers vary in length and structure—from excellent short lyrics (“ILOVETHEWHOLEFUCKINWORLD” and “I Am Such a Happy Little Girl”) to the extended finale, “Forget Rita,” which makes up about twenty percent of the book’s page count. Killebrew’s talent is best expressed in his mid-length poems (running about 60 to 150 lines) like “For Beth Ward” and “John Fucking Ashbery,” in which the powerful forward motion of his writing takes on an almost prose-like sense of development. This scale makes the poems’ deepening consciousness of time all the more satisfying in their evocation of traditional lyric themes of longing, desire, anxiety, and reflection. On this level, the most successful poem in the book is the 114-line “I Love Country Music,”
fermented into green books of music, loud country music,
and I love country music. It rolled around my ears
in corridors where boredom had once been so irrefutable
and heavy, and I was happy and dancing and throwing
punches at pigeons and even hitting a few. But the romantic
arc never made it over the willful lack of conviction,
some gap between the faces on the heads we saw
pass our table in the sour-faced restaurant run by those
French people, okay a gap between that and the face
in the dream you had of your father, the one where you said
he stuffed a billy club down a duck’s throat and called
for another shot of Dewar’s.
As in Ashbery’s best poetry, there is a constant spiraling away from each given specific focus, the poem’s speaker moving from object to object, idea to idea, until he arrives at, to use Alfred Corn’s phrase to describe Ashbery’s work, “a magma of interiors.” Killebrew is often more forcibly boisterous than Ashbery (“I was happy and dancing and throwing / punches at pigeons and even hitting a few”), which only seems to mask a deeper anxiety about the relentless, unstoppable, and ultimately ungraspable world around us. When Killebrew writes near the end of “John Fucking Ashbery,” “How was he never frantic explaining it?” the question is not an idle one.
This anxiety underpinning the boisterous tone is no better displayed than when Killebrew addresses the topic of race and regionalism in the South, where he grew up, as in this passage from “Buenos Dias, Cap’n Crunch”:
It’s better than Atlanta, where they treat people like cars
in a city that combines the rustic elegance of Newark
with the quiet dignity of a beer bong. Nashville
lurches toward a negative subjunctive of Atlanta
by sitting on a racial history they’re so goddamn
quiet about you’d almost think they were Swiss.
The last point’s well taken, and we can all point and laugh at Atlanta and Newark, but Killebrew does not stop there:
I know such jokes don’t fly
in New York, where the tones of racial dialogue
are so hushed I once wrote a poem about it
called “Hey I Might Be a Nigger,”
which I quickly threw away, feeling queasy.
I don’t have it in me to be a white Baraka,
but does that make me Billy Collins, a.k.a. Betty Crocker?
The tone here is breezy, but the ideas being raised stay with us long after the poet has moved on.
While technically proficient, Killebrew’s use of repetitions of words and phrases in a few poems—namely “In Eight Parts” and “I Will Learn to Make You Happy”—are less emotionally involving. Both poems have the cognitive logic of sestinas—neither of them are—that creates a sense of layering, yet they’re ultimately less focused than his best work.
The conflict between Killebrew’s substantial talent and enormous poetic ambition plays out in the final poem, “Forget Rita,” a continuous stream of text nearly five-hundred lines long. The poem won Killebrew the 2003 Poetry Society of America National Chapbook Fellowship, and as deserved as that was, reading the poem in the context of a full-length collection makes one realize how hard it is to sustain emotional intensity in a long poem. The kaleidoscopic movements that make the short and mid-length poems so successful become somewhat choppy in “Forget Rita,” ultimately undermining its power. But, even here, Killebrew displays talent to burn with some extraordinary passages that present a different kind of lyric development, as when Killebrew seamlessly slips into an excellent 14-line ghazal early on, then midway through the poem finds himself in a page-long narrative about a boy fishing with his dad. Regardless of its flaws, some of the best lines of the book appear in “Forget Rita”:
How else could I be here if not by piercing the fabric
of a decision to usher me in from the margins,
to place us nearer the time of day
when my head completed a full rotation on its column of meat
The marching band’s organizing concept
is a common distaste for whimsy
compelled by their pick-me-last ethos
Seeing the spectrum of challenges, events,
all the points won or lost or how each point
could be weighed heavier or lighter than those surrounding—
“How is it we don’t spend every spare moment
drafting acceptance speeches?”
asks the mirror of itself,
reading closely from the small stack of cards.
He goes on: “But of course, we are.
Our vocabularies are wracked with anxiety,
impatiently anticipating the day they will thank
the General, the crowd, even the weather
for its acknowledgement of how great a day.” Flip.
Ashbery is often called a poet of surface, but Killebrew has learned better: that the mingling of exterior and interior realities paradoxically makes the details that accumulate seem familiar, open, and expansive, but also romantically solitary, a barometer of consciousness. By the time Ashbery comfortably arrived at this style in the late sixties and early seventies, he was in his forties, and the poetry that captures the relentless movement of thought and experience has a sense of ennui, a resignation that recognizes that “there is no appeal, one will have to get to living with its qualities.” Killebrew has replicated this movement, but arrives at it over a decade younger than the master, and the poetry overall captures a still-deep resistance, even while recognizing that nothing can be done. Killebrew’s work therefore is in a more anxious key, always in a state of heightened attention to this uncertainty, that “you’re ever moving to new cities, never familiar / with the climate, or even the weather.”