"What's Your Poison? David Herrle reviews Collin Kelley's After the Poison"
published by Finishing Line Press
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"...you can see it boiling
in this melting pot, way too hot..."
Collin Kelley's social/political poems are never mixed to go down smoothly like, say, a Sea Breeze. They're Tanqueray served neat. So, if you like your "poison" to shoot and ask questions later, try Collin's latest poetry collection, After the Poison. As sure as death and taxes - and the Death Tax - Collin's art is abrasive. That's part of its charm. If all art were friction free, there'd be no free art. A world of unruffled feathers would be a bird-brained bore.
Collin is an Atlantan firebrand, a pissed-off customer, a burning oil field, the Amy Goodman of the Georgia poetry scene - and though he can be a somewhat dogmatic "lefty" with a barbed tongue for political foes, I dig his style and his forthrightness. He'd be a priceless "look who's coming to dinner" guest to bring to a stodgy, straight-laced, Victorian ball.
Mind you, I've never been a fan of social/political poetry, and I tend to avoid art that overtly serves an ideology or movement because it tends to become fundamentalist hot air, but my partyless iconoclasm hasn't tinned my ear to well-crafted, deftly spoken partisan poesy. Let's not dice words: Collin's a party man, a blue-stated American. (I almost hope McPalin wins just to see what Vesuvian outrage bursts from his pen in response.) However, there's a sincere suffering in his work that transcends platforms and programs - and keeps me flipping to the next page instead of slipping the book between Hunter S. and Chomsky.
His Old-School mother couldn't stop flipping either. At his Modern Confessional blog, Collin posted a cute passage about her initial reactions to the book. "What kind of poems are these?" she asked, initially disturbed by the opening piece, "Siege," which - surprise, surprise - bashes one of Collin's many Republican arch-nemeses, Ronald Reagan (mainly for R.R.'s implied gay blame of the then-new AIDS scare). Despite a jarring lynching metaphor, I consider this piece to be quintessential Kelley: devoid of apology and brimmed with pissed-off.
You can't help but cry, the old bastard
finally dead, like a daddy who beat you
almost to death...
"War For Oil (Darfur, Africa)" is the second and perhaps most poignant piece in the book. Neglected genocide hasn't impressed me so deeply since the Rwanda fiasco Clintonian America fumbled.
barely exists, offers no kickbacks
to presidents, their kin or commanders.
There's only scrabbled ground
wet with blood as women are raped
or a skull is cracked.
No liberation force is coming...
This piece is sibling to the later "Human Trafficking," which commemorates London's weird vanishing epidemic of young black boys back in 2001. The image of a literally defaced boy whose origin and identity have been erased by butchery is more sorrowful than thousands of cataclysm-slain. I grieve for that little lost sheep forgotten amidst the noisy flocks more than I grieve Antietam or Normandy.
One small boy, his homeland
a gene, his identity a mystery...
...One small boy, 299 still missing.
They call this one Adam.
"D." is a clever spiel about Death, and though I benignly resent my first-initial signature being used to stand for the cowled skeleton, I applaud Collin's excellent metaphors (or manifestations) of the Reaper: "a Santa Claus/with the last gift you'll ever receive," a drunk driver, "a bullied boy with an assault rifle," or a suicide bomber. Of course, due to some Equal Reaps Amendment perhaps, Death needn't be male. "Maybe she's a black siren/with the president's ear," Andrea Yates, or a female "judge holding the keys to the gas chamber." Collin's masterstroke is an interesting, non-Deist take on Death as both an interactive divinity and a Golden Boy:
Unlike various gods who never intervene,
death can be summoned by the lowest mortal,
made instrument, wielded, turned on a dime
at yourself or another...
...because death is that
goody-goody kid who could do everything well.
Though Katrina the Hurricane bores me almost as much as Joe the Plumber, "Katrina Origins" is a cool piece. Collin etymologizes the name Katrina, stirring various female names into the wind and rain: Eartha Kit (Kit being Kat's other half), "Trina, the trailer park girl," the goddess Hecate, the bone-breaking Catherine Wheel, and a lynched, black everywoman named Katherine. (How could he have resisted including "Katrina and the Waves?")
"Los Angeles," "Across Sampson Street," and "Fairy Tale Eating Disorders" are three more of my favorites. I don't dislike any pieces totally. My Katrina-weariness turned me off to "Drowned World," and "Confidentiality" is a somewhat racialist indictment of Condi Rice (one of Collin's death metaphors) that falls flat for me despite the sensible call for admission of Bush's war-pretext lies. "Fatwa" - though I have a strong stomach for most shock-and-awe subjects - bothered me (ruffled my feathers) a bit. I'll refrain from describing it, just in case this review is being read by a kid between age zero and 90. Let's just say that it includes a classic Collin passage about visceral, impulsive sexual surrender. (Insert winking smiley-face emoticon here.)
Collins ends the collection with "In Harlem," from which I excerpted the introductory quote. It's such an effective conclusion, that I'll not spoil it by giving it away. All the anger, tension and social kindling for an inevitable, collective fire swells to a crescendo, and I can't help but feel that we're all (to tweak the meaning of a "Fatwa" line) "fucking in rhythm and sorrow" before a Big Bang, a bursting of a poison-filled blister, hoping to recover after a mass detox.
I assume that the choice to name the collection After the Poison is meant as a sigh of relief after the topsy-turvy, slimy Bush administration. However, in this poisonous world, I insist that there is no stable "after," as far as mere politics or promises go. The poison is a norm, though there are periods of remission and ease. Material salvation only lasts so long, ecstasy fades, reforms deform. Though policies vary, they are enacted in the same, contaminated environment. We flee from poison into poison that we have made and marketed ourselves. Frederick Douglass wrote that "the human heart is a seat of constant war."
"What's your poison?" is the question posed to all of us. Life's a matter of drinking or refusing this or that poison, nourishing ourselves with living water or becoming colorless from spiritual equivalents to crystal meth. However, to lift a bit from Collin's "Hurt,"
a spark is there, an antidote against gray.
That spark is the only hope against the poison in our hearts. It comes before, during, and after everything. That spark is love, not platforms or programs. It causes us to mourn for a nameless, faceless, murdered boy, and it illuminates long after change changes, races stop racing, flood waters recede, and presidents are buried in their coffins. I endorse Collin's book because of that spark. The spark has set him afire. His love is hatred for the poison.
- review by David Herrle 10/2008
Also featured at The Compulsive Reader.
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