David Herrle reviews Slow To Burn by Collin Kelley
published by MetroMania Press 2006
300-count limited edition signed by the author
$10 + $2 (shipping/handling)
more info/buy the book
"I am slow to burn, waiting for a match strike..."
Sometimes cliches can't be avoided. So excuse me when I initially describe Collin Kelley's new chapbook as charming. The cliche fits; no other one will quite do. Charming to look at, charming to touch and hold, charming in poetic content, Slow To Burn "had me at hello" when I received it in the post.
As a bibliophile, I'm smitten by the physical charm of books, especially prints from bygone eras. (At Pittsburgh's famous Jay's Book Stall many years ago, I found a lovely copy of Ben Hecht's Fantazius Mallare that was a pleasure to hold. Sigh.) I think folks are judging books by covers (at least to purchase) more these days. We can be suckers for good-looking, fun-to-touch books, but it's better when physical charm matches literary substance (a rarity these days).
Slow To Burn is a physical and poetic work of art. Put it this way: my wife said, "This is beautiful" as she felt the cover and flipped through the pages. I agreed. Chapbooks are different from paperbacks in that they are usually smaller, not spine-bound, and they have an "indy" feel. STB's deceptively simple cover presents no graphic, only words typed in textured, shiny, red letters that disintegrate or, more precisely, burn against a black field (see above). Bright red, translucent paper precedes and follows the main pages. I caught a deeper vibe from the front cover after reading the poems. The red letters in the blackness are the crackling, calming embers after conflagration or Collin's spirit penetrating the void, but so intense as to consume itself before our eyes.
The title page of my copy bears Collin's authentic signature. Slow To Burn is in limited printing. I own #30 of 300. That's pretty special. These original 300 are destined to be collector's items, since another printing is probably due.
I thought and spoke very highly of Collin's debut poetry collection, Better To Travel (2003), and HalfLife Crisis, his spoken-word CD (2004). (Two poems, "The Clarity of Loss" and "What Remains," were featured on HalfLife Crisis). STB surpasses these works. It seems braver, more penetrative, more controlled yet more easy, sometimes sagelike. Collin bears his warm and hot heart. Folks familiar with some of his fiery blog entries will notice the relative lack of political ire in this work. Though the book contains somber or reflective moments, there's active energy coursing from poem to poem. Fire is not passive by nature. Unseen heat can build up to a critical level; fire can change from dangerous servant to fearful master (ala George Washington) in a blink. Collin masterfully patterns his lines and juxtaposes pieces, varying his burn from spark to combustion to soft smolder.
Before folks "boo" my too obvious fire imagery ("We GET it, Davey. The title is Slow To BURN!"), I throw the blame on Collin. First of all, anyone who is familiar with Collin's work, especially his blog, knows that he can go from warm to searing hot when something moves him positively or negatively. STB is full of elemental dichotomy, particularly fire/water, heat/coolness, dry/wet. The fire motif isn't novel. In fact, writers have been obsessed with it since fire and writing. But this is one common thing that is fair game without cliche. We're immersed in earth, wind, fire, and water; we're dependent on them. Our very bodies are constant hot and cold regulators and reactors. We're also obsessed with blood -- and blood is the fire of the body. So blood recurs in STB. Yes, Collin uses the color red to evoke blood, fire, violence and passion, smoke as a fire corollary, and white as absence or drained life, etc. He freshens the familiar, however.
We are presented with "Farrah's red bathing suit," Atlanta burning in Gone With the Wind (the fact that Collin, the burner, is an Atlanta resident can't be ignored), Dorothy's red slippers in The Wizard of Oz, fireworks (which are quick to burn and recur in the book), the Wicked Witch's "flume of smoke" (the pop-cultural recognition of her setting the Scarecrow on fire pops up of course), Wonder Woman's red bustier, drinking wine, a candle (slow to burn), a poem called "Ash Wednesday" (emphasis added) and "Slow To Burn" and "What Remains" (evoking ashes, spared things), a desire to leave a blood mark on Paris' Pont Neuf. "NYC Again" rejoices in the city (the fiery Phoenix, the blood-red Big Apple) that rose from 9/11 ashes.
Lines burst with the motifs. In "Double Fantasy" Collin recalls a suicidal friend's signature written "in long blood strokes," the "rust-colored words." In "Ian," recalling an early male lover who succumbed to his mother's anti-gay abuse, he writes, "You would burn these words like a spy" and "In the end you would have set me on fire." More: "synapse fireworks," "flaming out of the sky," "planes crashing" (evoking 9/11: blood, fire, smoke, ash), "suddenly on fire," "fever years," "like copper pennies/in your mouth, like blood," "the rising heat just before twilight," "smoke-screened the wall," a burning at the stake image, "made first seduction a blood sport," honest expression described as "jugular spray" (quick to bleed), sacrificial image implying a funeral pyre, mention of Klaus Barbie and Nazi camps (evoking mass incineration), smoked cigarettes, "Kate Bush's face glowing/in the dark" (the burning bush?), "all the lines/suddenly on fire, a map gone to cinder."
Ashes return to ashes in this clip from the conclusion of "Laura Brown":
The expatriation of self,
the erasing of human traces...
circling up into thin air mythology,
as if to nothing.
Think fire and you'll probably think water. "In "Put Yourself In My Place" water and fire motifs are presented together: "floating along the Seine/into the sunset." In "The Virgin Mary Appears In A Highway Underpass" (a Daliesque title), a humorous poem about Mary apparition or shape sightings, these lines appear: "But why would she choose to appear/in condensation, burnt toast or ditch water runoff?" In "Muses Are Never Quiet": "Woke up, mouth drenched," "my mouth is wet." Storms and rain recur several times in STB, people walk under umbrellas. Clips like "[i]n the way you run hot bath water," "parade that slogged through humidity", "dirt and damp," or "covered in sweat,/sticky with the unspoken," evoke wet heat, literal perspiration -- a clear bleeding, so to speak, a release of excess heat so we don't burn up.
"In "Underneath," the bloodstain the narrator wants to leave on the Pont Neuf is imagined to be "high above the waterline," which seems tantamount to "on the right side of the dirt": life celebrative. We will die someday, but Collin acknowledges "I am on the boat now." Being above water, in this case, is to be above death (drowning, sinking). Collin's since-high school friend, Tina (to whom Slow To Burn is dedicated), initially befriended him as a subject to be saved, salvaged, and stoked with new life: "She was going to right my sinking ship."
So water can represent sorrow and abyss as well as life. Darkness, like water, is a swallower, snuffer, or eraser as well as incubator. "Laura Brown" begins thus:
You packed one morning,
caught the Toronto bus,
disappeared like a chalk mark
in a rainstorm.
Too much water erases humanity, snuffs lives, overwhelms as did Hurricane Katrina, mentioned in Collin's New Orleans tribute, "St. Louis Cemetery No.1." Hurricanes come and go as "tears came and went" (from "Ash Wednesday") - individuals' tears are just as significant. Death's anticipated darkness also leaks (rather than bursts as through levvies) into our lives as we age.
In "Peter Greenaway":
We get into the leaking boat, row out,
taking on water.
Holding hands as we slip into the blackness.
"Duality" deals with a white motif against the darkness/voidness we first meet on the book's cover: "...men in white/saving her from the craven darkness." (White as savior in this case but negation elsewhere.) "Beth's porcelain forehead is smudged" with ash in "Ash Wednesday." In "Ian": "...lashes across your pale skin, the marbled bruises." In "St. Louis Cemetery No. 1": "[w]ind and water is other world, immaterial/in alabaster mansions, souls just out of reach." Absence of elemental flux and soul is evident in static, soulless whiteness -- dead coldness. Blood ceases circulation and breaks down, negation takes over.
Blood and death/negation/white in "Ash Wednesday":
They've painted over the red walls
in Tina's old fifth floor apartment,
a flat white, taking the blood out...
...the pushpin sticks my thumb,
white lines smear with ink,
almost breaks the skin, almost bleeds.
A once living body becomes cold and hard when it dies, so living heat extremely contrasts corpse temperature, weaves tension throughout our death-foreknowing lives. Lifelines on warm palms exude mortality: "[M]y fingertips tracing your open palm,/every line a dead-end."
In "Put Yourself In My Place" heat rises despite sitting "on a cold stone floor in a hotel lobby":
...out of our heads, out of this world, you held out a hand,
then the fireworks.
Humans can literally and figuratively become shells or mere forms in and out of life. The suicidal subject in "Double Fantasy" performs "dead idol worship" at a John Lennon shrine in her closet. I can't help but imagine primarily white statues, busts, and sculptures: the appearance of life but the unthinking, bottom-line fact of bodily breakdown shown in leftover bones. In "St. Louis Cemetery No. 1": "Heat never dries the ground here, just bones." So white can represent death as much as black and darkness. In "Laura Brown": "...sick to death/at the stalemate life has become." Think of stalemate's stasis (deadness) and the white and black pieces. In "Acid Flashback #1": "Your words tipped us into cold war."
Very cold water becomes ice. Death stops sight, make eyes icy. Ice imagery shows up in a skidding car wreck dream in "Ash Wednesday" and in "Duality": "powder frosted her lips." One can think of ice as "dead" water or reflective reminder of mortality like mirrors. "Turn your mirror on me, my suicide twin," Collin says in "Duality." The suicide reflects our own lives' fragility and runaway despair. We look into the suicidal person's or successful suicide's death-craving or dead eyes and see ourselves as future, inevitable cold things (statues, idols, static game pieces), surrendered spirits. Deferred dreams may be "put on ice," as the saying goes, and they may never bear fruit, might leave one "rigored on a slab" (as Collin puts it in "Laura Brown"). Mirroring/duality can be read into various situations: the gender sameness of two kissing boys in "Ian," Aimee chasing death and pregnant Laura Brown being "chased" by life, the fetus kicking, "let me live," Mary sightings reflecting folks' desperate desire to see Mary, an acid flashback as mirror of the original experience, poetry in general being poets' mirrors.
Collin mentions or alludes to human sacrifice, martyrdom, and crucifixion several times. In "Put Yourself In My Place" (a piece that reminds me of Collin's "Diners At 2 A.M." from Better To Travel and spoken on HalfLife Crisis), he seeks to absolve the subject of the poem (Bo?) "unlike the others I crucified in words/to cleanse myself." What an honest admission of scapegoating! In "Ian," an abusive mother whips her son with "sure Jesus strokes." This seems present in "Double Fantasy: "I have your suicide letters, Aimee,/signed from dripping wounds." (Christ as opposite: a message/declaration of life "written" in shed blood?)
Collin is adept at producing effective sound in his poems. They please the mind's ear as well as the actual ear (when read or heard aloud). Beyond that, Slow To Burn contains so many other cool combinations, metaphors, and transitions. An unfettered Wonder Woman fantasy precedes a poem about a regretful, pregnant woman who abandons a domestic "past [she] never wanted." Directly after that piece - speaking of mother and child - is the "Virgin Mary" poem. Two poems after "Karaoke For Klaus Barbie" (say the title aloud: great sound), the narrator wants to sing back his "old muses," Lauryn Hill and Nina Simone. He karaokes himself, so to speak: "my soul singing to itself." "St. Louis Cemetery No.1" is followed by "Acid Flashback #1."
"I say, cut the parlor tricks, Mary," he says about the awkward and lowly alleged Holy Virgin sightings. Later he mentions Madonna and lost faith. (The abusive mother flogging her son's genitals scene is a fractured version of Mother and Child.) In the opening poem, he remembers "my father's blind eye," foreshadowing a smuggled, undetected gay kiss behind father's back in the car. Car crashes come up later -- symbolizing the abrupt collision of realizing and admitting homosexuality perhaps? Double-entendre is at its best in this clip: "See the way my toes curl, surrounded by faggots/like Joan on her worst day." The first poem also mentions Oz's Wicked Witch, and "Ian" (coming after the following poem) begins with "Before you made me a witch."
Quiet or soundless things strike the mind's ear: cancer, a fetus' kick, "[t]he proximity of our shoulders," "my fingertips tracing your open palm." Silences (loud silences) and noises alternate: a "mouth an O in the rearview mirror" of a crashing car or the silent simplicity of holding hands to "shrill [dog] yaps sounding absurdly like kiss kiss kiss," fireworks, guns, NYC traffic honks, 1776. "Muses Are Never Quiet" is the title of the twelfth poem in the book.
"NYC Again" is one of my faves. I know Collin's heart goes out to disaster-stricken areas and people. He was quite active after the Asian tsunami and Katrina, and 9/11 seems to have imprinted him deeply. (The tsunami and hurricane crushed places in water; 9/11 bathed in fire and smoke.) Political angles don't show up in this piece, though one line says, "poetry is all sex and politics." It's about regenerated routines and normalizing New York City scenes despite the horror of that September morning (without being a typical "ode to 9/11" borefest): a cigar-smoking old man, the out-of-towner stuck behind a garbage truck and paying the price of politeness with New Yorkers' honks, cultural districts booming, rampant pill-popper teens, hookers smiling "like they mean it," a storm moving in. "Even the rain seems perfect again."
"Bell Curve" (a poem I'm familiar with) is about Collin's friendship with Tina from start to present. Again, Slow To Burn is dedicated to Tina. She sounds like a special person, and if tribute poems are any indication of their subjects, Tina must deserve the honor and more.
No matter how far you get away
from high school, first love leaves you marked
like holy water across the face.
It is a brutal exorcism from innocence
and those who tell you otherwise are liars.
Almost every element I've highlighted in this review shows up in the title poem, "Slow To Burn." I'd prefer that the book's closing piece, "What Remains," directly followed, with its "rainy Sunday" (a dousing) and its "afterglow" (not the book's final word by accident, I assume). Regardless, "Slow To Burn" is an appropriate close to this review.
Slow To Burn
I am slow to burn, waiting for a match strike,
a long drag against me, catching sparks.
See the way my toes curl, surrounded by faggots
like Joan on her worst day.
Retardant just long enough for roll call, the names
who slapped heresy into me.
All you poets, who have lost touch with the microphone,
take joy out of craft, suck life out of classrooms,
shut doors on those who will eventually overtake you anyway.
I've been sacrificed for less, and by lesser martyrs.
Take your little birds and give me vultures.
I want to see what made you hungry from the first day,
when the words were a jugular spray unstaunched
by tenure and incessant murmurings from those who believe
exposing a soft underbelly is tantamount to career suicide.
Let's get this blaze roaring. Kindle me up, boys.
Throw on your booze, three pack a day habit, incest,
Oedipal complexes, failed marriages, homosexuality, war, peace,
cancer, love that has carved you more expertly than a serial killer.
Really stoke me.
You've never needed these things before;
they don't fit on your pages, because they bleed too much.
I am the flame, laid bare by desire. Put fire in my hands.
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