The Poet in Time: History, Identity, and Politics in Three New Poetry Collections

Reviewed in this essay:

We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, Brian Gilmore, Cherry Castle Publishing, 82 pp., ISBN 9780692273272

The Day of the Border Guards, Katherine E. Young, University of Arkansas Press, 74 pp., ISBN 9781557286550

Honest Engine, Kyle Dargan, University of Georgia Press, 96 pp., ISBN 9780820347288

 

Reviews by Rose Solari

We live in a country and a world full of divisions that often turn violent. So it is heartening to read three new collections that each display their author’s profound sense of responsibility to bear witness to and critique the circumstances in which we live. In Brian Gilmore’s We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, Katherine E. Young’s Day of the Border Guards, and Kyle Dargan’s Honest Engine, readers will find three immensely intelligent poets who wed craft to conscience, exploring issues of race, class, gender, and politics.

The title of Brian Gilmore’s third collection, We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, is a sly joke on popular culture, where many writers claim bragging rights over criminal pasts. Gilmore’s authenticity comes from a different place: the controlled but gentle attention he pays to every nuance of daily life. In the opening poem, “billy bathgate (for chico),” the poet meditates on the photo featured on the book’s cover, of a teenaged Gilmore with a group of male friends. He writes:

we are capable boys;

innocent,

up some small mountain

in summertime

from that swamp of a city.

 

we couldn’t juggle balls

didn’t know any gangsters

 

all we had was ice cold michelob

and red juicy melon

holy like water.

 

The simplicity of Gilmore’s language allows him to layer meaning here without overwhelming us. The slanting contrast between “capable” and “innocent”; the depiction of Washington, DC’s summer as swamp-like up against implied coolness of the rural areas surrounding it, where the mountains are indeed “small”; the boys’ denial of their fellow campers’ implied assumptions—that the African-American boys would entertain them with performance, or at least, stories of “gangsters”; the elevation of the ordinary —beer, watermelon—to the sacred when it is shared with close friends; all of this is packed into ten neat lines.

The first of the book’s two sections, named after those “Capable Boys,” focuses on events from the poet’s childhood and teenage years. It is peopled with friends and relatives, many of whom have poems dedicated to them. Particularly powerful among these are “a soldier’s story (for my father)” and “make it plain (for my mother)”, in which Gilmore captures the everyday heroism of his parents. The second section, “Second Lives,” picks up with the poet’s decision to attend a college other than DC’s historic, and historically black, Howard University, as his parents had planned. The first poem in that section, “2001: a space odyssey”, describes it this way:

i want to go away to college, i tell my

parents. a small predominantly

white college in the mountains of western

maryland. their faces a double mona

lisa.

 

a man is changing a flat tire in the

middle of a busy intersection. i have

walked up and told him, step aside,

let me get that for you.

 

a dog with rabies is at my front door

barking wildly; i invite him in the

house, offer him food.

 

Again, the poet layers meaning with great subtlety: in the line breaks between “my” and “parents,” suggesting arguments to come, between “predominantly” and “white,” where those parents were planning on “predominately black,” and between “mona” and “lisa,” lingering on the sound “moan” before completing the surprising and witty reference to a hallmark of Western culture, all work to provide plenty of tension, while the two metaphors that follow continue to deepen our sense of the weight of his transgressive act. The rabid dog in particular struck me—I read it in part as an allusion to Zora Neal Hurston’s great novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which the heroine, Janie, watches her lover Tea Cake go mad from rabies contracted from a dog bite, and eventually, out of love and compassion, shoots him.

The poet goes from boy to man, lawyer, husband, and father in this section, but the honoring of those he loves and admires remains. As with the first section, these poems are often dedicated to others—journalists Amy Goodman and Ta-Nehisi Coates, poets D.J. Renegade, Darrell Stover, Gaston Neal and Amiri Baraka, and the poet’s children, among others. Gilmore’s collection is, on one profound level, a love letter to his family, to those dear to him, and to DC, the “swamp of a city” that still captures his heart.

A sense of place also figures predominantly in Katherine E. Young’s debut collection, Day of the Border Guards. All of the poems here are set in Russia or former countries of the USSR. Young, also a translator of Russian poetry, has clearly been influenced by that country’s tradition of poets as public intellectuals; in fact, “influenced” may be too weak a word. Her sophistication of thought about political power and oppression seems to come easily, even organically to her. You never hear the gears shift from private to public. It is all one whole.

For example, in “Centralized Heating,” Young informs us that in Moscow, uninsulated hot water pipes cause many deaths each year; when they rupture underground, human beings and animals tumble through surface ice and are boiled to death. She writes, “And still they lay uninsulated / / pipe, because that’s what they’ve always done.” Though we may be shocked by the particularities here, that second line is a sadly familiar bureaucratic excuse to people all over the world. Then Young takes a sideways turn, looking out the window at a woman who has used that same not-very hot water to wash her underthings, and hung them on a line to dry. She writes:

…What do we truly share,

this Russian washerwoman and I? Only

these iron heating vents, these leafless birches

shivering in the ice-covered courtyard.

A certain elasticity of mind:

The way we softly mouth the words God rest

his soul before we turn our thoughts away.

 

Contemplating horrific bureaucratic indifference, she gives us leafless birches for bodies, and the survival mechanism of “elasticity of mind” as a forged connection between her and other women in her adopted home. It’s a quiet poem, and all the more moving for it.

In “No Dog in This Fight,” set in Chechnya, in 1995, Young pays tribute to American foreign aid worker and disaster relief expert Frederick C. Cuny, who was abducted and killed there. The title is taken from former U.S. Secretary of State’s James Baker’s statement on the Balkan’s conflict. Young asks, “What gives a man courage in places / like these?” and continues:

 

And to the stranger bringing succor

in this squalid little war, is it

much comfort, thinking he’ll go home

to a land of self-evident truths,

to hot and cold running water,

to all night diners? He’s a large-

boned man; they’ll find remains.

 

The repeated s’s of stranger, succor, and squalid hiss with tempered emotion, and the description of home is cold comfort indeed, while the line breaks add layers of meaning to the end words, particularly the hyphen break on “large-,” which allows us to see the man as big-souled as well as big-boned. The despair in this poem is palpable.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Young’s work here is that her love for Russia—the country, its language, its literature—is as clearly depicted as that despair. In “Speaking English,” she finds her native language “cold” and “crude” up against the Russian tongue; in “June Snow,” she celebrates the “selves I’ve shed” in her new country; in “On the Bosphorous,” dedicated to Joseph Brodsky, she celebrates the beauty of a wharf on the Black Sea, concluding, “I watch the ferryman’s / daughter enchain a flower in her hair,” and the use of enchain is indeed enchanting. The book concludes with the author, in “Peredelkino,” listening to a nightingale’s song.

Kyle Dargan is as deeply ambivalent about the U.S. as Young is about Russia, and has a similar sense of public and private as parts of one whole. In Honest Engine, his fourth collection of poetry, Dargan, Director of the Creative Writing Program at American University, opens with a statement of purpose. He writes, “This collection begins at a rupturing,” and goes on to list the deaths of a number of his family members and friends. He concludes, “With maturation, there is mounting darkness, but I cannot allow it to be all I see. “

As with Gilmore, Dargan’s work grows out of his sense of identity as an African-American man at a particular—and particularly violent—time and place in our history. But if Gilmore’s work is charged with hope, Dargan’s is laden with the weight of responsibility, as demonstrated in that telling phrase, “I cannot allow it.” I read it as the poet admitting to his own tendency to despair, and resolving not to let it overwhelm him so that he can fulfill his poetic responsibilities.

This is made clear in the collection’s opening section, or “cycle,” entitled “Equity.” In “State of the Union,” he writes of the tradition of having one member of the President’s cabinet not present at that address:

…tasked with waiting to resurrect

our country should Iran, Russia, or China, or

what’s left of Iraq try to bowl a ballistic seven-ten

split, toppling the Monument and Capitol.

 

The biblical tone of “resurrect” and the tragedy of the phrase “what’s left of Iraq,” cannot be lightened, even by a metaphor drawn from bowling. The poem concludes with an image of the death before resurrection:

I prefer to imagine our Secretary of Agriculture

listening to the speech on battery-powered radio,

sifting seed through his dusty palms, deciding

what must grow first in the aftermath of fire.

 

There are many apocalyptic and near apocalyptic images in this volume, as in “Cormac McCarthy in Translation,” in which Dargan writes that “…our stories / all begin with the world almost ending / here.” But to focus on that alone would be to ignore another through-line in Honest Engine: Dargan’s sense of the complex responsibility of being a man. Indeed, while the title is a multi-layered riff on slang for extreme honesty, it is worth noting that the initials are HE. In “Capture Myopathy,” he challenges the codes of masculinity that require men to always hide their fear; in “Art Project,” he writes of a year in which, each time he heard a man say, “I fucked her,” he asked that man to make a drawing of what he meant by those words. And “Points of Contact,” in which Dargan uses the difficult Ghazal form to great effect, begins, “Name one revolution whose inception was unlike a fist,” and concludes, “So laden the psyches of men. Father, must I also think like a fist?” In a book full of thought-provoking images and ideas, this poem lingered longest in my mind.

*

Rose Solari is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, The Last Girl, Orpheus in the Park, and Difficult Weather, the one-act play, Looking for Guenevere, and the novel, A Secret Woman. Her awards include the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, The Columbia Book Award, and an EMMA for excellence in journalism.

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