Review of Collin Kelley’s RENDER

Render by Collin Kelley – Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013
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What moralists are demanding from a photograph is that it do what no photograph can ever do – speak. Susan Sontag, On Photography


In The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton wrote that you can return home either by never leaving or by traveling around the entire world until you arrive at the starting point.  Collin has traveled a long way (figuratively and literally) since his debut poetry collection, Better To Travel, and his latest book, Render, might as well have been subtitled Better to Stay Home, because Collin takes us back to his very birth and guides us through a poetic photo album that’s a showcase for more than careful poses and “cheese”-activated grins.

The meaning of the book’s title becomes obvious when you see that the cover image depicts the author (tellingly) out of focus behind a large-format studio camera.  Collin is a meticulous metaphorizer, so, of course, Render’s divided parts are named accordingly: reticulation, aperture, blowup and resolution.  (Not that there aren’t double meanings to them.)  Finally, the concluding poem, which shares the book’s title, is written for photographer Sally Mann.  Its poetic stanzas are interspersed with instructions on how to render a photograph, and the closing lines could have been used as a caveat for the reader at the beginning of the book: “Note that a blue sky and clouds are impossible to render/Expect imperfections and subtle debris.”  Clever move, Collin.

Though Render revolves around the author’s maturation into adulthood and socks us right in our kissers with both the sacred and profane of his formative years,  the book seems equally concerned with his parents, to whom it is dedicated.  This triune dynamic is described perfectly in a piece called “Tuscumbia, Alabama”: “My parents on each end of a see-saw, up and down, and me/in the middle, a counterbalance.”
The sorest spot in the book is Collin’s mother’s infidelity, and it strikes me as its central conflict.  “[M]y mother turns bitter and adulterous, no sizzle in the bacon/my father brings home,” Collin writes in “Parallel Lines.”  This burdensome memory serves as a shameful backdrop behind most of the book’s autobiographical snapshots.  That the mother’s cheating puts the father in a sympathetic light is granted, but it seems to also cause the author to question the desirability of his very birth.  For instance, in “Blackout”: “I wasn’t a gleam in anyone’s eye…I wonder if she wished ’65 back at the final push?”  And in “Tuscumbia, Alabama” his mother looks “into some middle distance,/beyond my father into the next life of no children,/no responsibilities, a clean slate to begin again.”

“To Margot Kidder, With Love” provides strong evidence of this shame by revealing that Collin (“in need of rescue” at the age of ten) was regularly dropped off at the movie theater so as to keep him clear of his mother’s trysts: “I pretended not to care what my mother was doing,/but I was cashing in part of my childhood to keep up the charade…”  His weekly movie choice was Superman, and he related to and was comforted by actress Margot Kidder (“my surrogate”), who played the ever-imperiled Lois Lane.  Collin’s affinity for the actress is a primary example of his tendency to identify with female icons, such as Judy Garland, Farrah Fawcett, Pam Grier, Debbie Harry and Wonder Woman.

Who knows exactly when bored or stressed love finally caves in and excitement is sought outside of marriage?  This process is usually gradual, but children tend to be delineative and attribute significant events to relatively insignificant ones.  In “Breaking My Mother’s Leg” Collin recalls screaming at the sight of a grasshopper while sitting in his kiddie pool as a child.  His mother, fearing the worst, breaks her right leg during a dramatic rescue attempt.  Heartbreakingly, the boy within the man blames himself for the broken leg and blames the break for the rift in his parent’s marriage:

[S]he would never be the same again.
After mending, she lived a lifetime in five years,
casting my father off for another man,
flaunting herself around town.

The sharp crack of bones
was a dividing line between one life and the next…

The other revealing light that shines through the aperture is the author’s awakening gay sexuality.  Though he masturbated to both Daisy Duke and The Blue Lagoon’s Christopher Atkins during early puberty, the ephebic island Adonis ultimately won over the Georgian Venus.  However, a “nerdy fuck” named Dirk – not a bronze, blonde hunk – was his first major (closet-shy) flame: “His mismatched clothes, ill-fitting jeans, dirty sneakers,/my queer eye for a sexually confused guy already razor sharp.”

As sexual confidence strengthens, the poet as a young man shows a tendency toward seduction, an almost sardonic pleasure in undermining “fagbash suburbia” and shattering tenuous straightness since his “aim was true” in contrast to others’ “scattershot” due to “God blinders.”  For instance, in “Ian” (which winks at Dangerous Liaisons fans):

This was only a test, Ian, to see if I could use my power.
Like Valmont, stripping away your virginity, your God blinders.
I hooked you on the first cast, reeled you in,
left you gasping, until your whispered declarations
were intercepted on the downstairs extension.

He becomes braver and braver in exercising his true aim, the once-clumsy novice hardening into a determined marksman, with all of the predatory energy of the universal horny.  “Bare Back,” about a pickup and quickie with an anonymous hitchhiker, marks a graduation from crushes to outright promiscuity.  Curiously, Collin links this development with his mother: “I feel myself slouching toward whore./It’s passed down through maternal genes.”

I find myself questioning the reality of “Hustling,” the poem that follows “Bare Back.”  Playing out like a scene from My Own Private Idaho, it portrays the narrator in his late 20s letting a repulsive 70-something fellate him for money.  Up to this point I’d taken Render as embellished autobiography, but I wonder if this piece is more whore-metaphor than dramatized fact.  “Freshman Orientation,” a poem I think should have been coupled with “Hustling,” reverses the situation: the narrator now as the older man (“past my sell by date”) doing the sucking.  Echoing the “Bare Back” situation, like the hitchhiker Collin is “a blank screen,” a nameless source of raw pleasure.  The tryst is a response to a personal Craigslist ad posted by an Asian college student (“orientation”: get it?) who wants good head from another man who’s not “to old” [sic]:

I become device and vessel made of metal
a receptacle for your youthful stamina…
I’m a blank screen
project those skinny boys onto me…

There’s a recurrence of the author being offered as “a receptacle,” his “soft palate/a perfect landing pad for fallen angels.”  Perhaps this can be read as a futile attempt to fill an emotional void.  (Hey, just because it’s banal doesn’t mean it’s invalid.)  The author’s sexuality, as far as Render goes, seems to be one of reception more than penetration.  Even when he is the seducer, he is offered as reward to the other for giving in.  I can’t help but recall impactful metaphors from “Mr. Rogers Made Me Fat.”  Here is the full poem:

It was after Make-Believe,
when I was vulnerable.
He made the peanut butter
jar appear on his kitchen table
between the Museum-Go-Round
and Daniel Striped Tiger’s Clock,
dipped in a spoon, lifted it
to his mouth like sacrament,
proclaimed it good.

Wishing for Someplace Else,
I wanted to please him,
so I scampered to the kitchen,
climbed the counter to the top
shelf and found my first addiction.
As the cold metal touched
my tongue and salty sweet
the roof of my mouth, I was hooked.

The empty jars would stretch
to the moon now, Fred is dead,
and the magic Trolley still runs
on schedule, perpetually empty.
It disappears into a hole in the wall
faster than Lady Elaine Fairchild’s
and I’m too tall and wide to follow.

What better way to mitigate the inaccessibility of the “hole in the wall” than to become the “hole in the wall?”  In “Sex Machines” the author admits to lifelong psychosexual infantilism, which often involves submission, the desire for mothering, identification with nurturing women and the like.  Is Collin’s desire to “surrender to the no name night” part turn-on and part expiation?  Out of mercy to the reader, I’ll leave further psychoanalysis to keener minds.  Besides, as Sontag wrote, “[P]hotographs do not explain; they acknowledge.”

In all the sex and mommy stuff I’ve neglected the other dear star of Render: Collin’s father.  As not-so-pleasing coincidence would have it, he passed away recently, which doubles the book’s impact on me.  “My Father Escapes A London Hotel Fire” is a deeply moving piece on its own.  Whether or not it’s a dream or fantasy, it involves exactly what the title says, and the close call brings the author and a female bystander together in an inexplicable mutual attraction.   During an intense moment of sublimated affection and desire Collin claims to be tempted to switch teams (to use a Seinfeldism inappropriately) and make love to the girl: “I love her, want to be/inside her, renounce my past life, but we know this will not/happen.”  Is this his big chance to be the straight son his father assumed he’d be long ago, not under duress or shame but out of love and maybe pity?  I’m reminded of a passage from an earlier poem called “Wonder Woman.”  Instead of G.I. Joe young Collin prefers to dress up as the comic-book Amazon, and his father makes him a golden lasso made from spray-painted rope.  The boy imagines forcing “the truth” (of what we don’t know) out of his father with the lasso, which elicits absolute honesty from its captives:

I lassoed my poor dad first, demanded the truth,
but there was no magic in those rough, twisted fibers.
If the rope could have squeezed out an ounce
of what he was really thinking,
I would have been dressed up as Superman or Batman,
a manly cape flying out behind me as I ran…

The closing lines of “My Father Escapes A London Hotel Fire” are too ironic and touching not to share:

I hear my father stir. I tried, I say through the open door.
Oxygen whistles through his nose: We’re alive, why ask for

I hope that Mr. Kelley managed to read Render, for it portrays him in a very sympathetic light.  He was a man whose “work ethic/[kept] him out of the house and underpaid,” who was loving enough to spray-paint a rope to make it look like Wonder Woman’s lasso, who supported reconciliation of the marriage despite the harsh trials it suffered.  This isn’t to say that I’ve no sympathy for Mrs. Kelley.  No, in spite of the multiple reminders of her adultery, I left the book with a very soft spot for her.  By the time I got to the middle of “Broken Things,” a poem that just kills me (not in the funny way), I was more than ready for her absolution.  The human heart is a volatile, tricky, tragic thing, after all.  This fact should be self-evident.

In her old age Mrs. Kelley has what Collin calls “selective amnesia,” which seems to serve her denial of past decisions – to the point of condemning parents who leave their children behind at malls.  Her husband, “the elephant who never forgets,” knows better (or worse): having kept track of all those times his wife left young Collin alone at home or elsewhere when human nature called.  In her lucidity, however, she atones for her past neglect in her own way, and Collin chooses to avoid poisonous resentment, delivering the most compassionate lines in the book:

When she returns to earth, constant contact
becomes her repentance, radio always transmitting,
and even from this distance I can hear
her distress call, waiting for a message
that I have forgiven her, and I have.
The snapshot in Render that touches me most is found in a piece called “Barney Rubble Saves Our Lives,” which stars a seven-year-old Collin.  The three Kelleys will be stranded on Brasstown Bald if their Ford LTD’s leaking radiator isn’t filled enough for the car to make it to the closest gas station.  There’s nothing around that can hold water, but little Collin realizes that his precious Barney Rubble bank (with a “dildo nose”) can do the trick:

That’s when I offer up Barney
remove the flesh colored cap from his feet,
place my finger over the change slot in his head.

How utterly sweet.  Indeed, the boy was “in the middle, a counterbalance” – and he saved the day, not Barney.  
This poem is one of the many reasons Render is my favorite of Collin’s books so far.  While I enjoy many writers for their style over their content, the content of this book shines brighter for me.  Though there were some rough spots, and a smudge tool would have helped, this is his clearest work.  I appreciate his candidness, his exposure, his resolution.  Going home isn’t easy; sometimes it can be downright painful.  But how forgiving and lovely those family photos can be.


– review by David Herrle