After the Poison by Collin Kelley
(Finishing Line Press, Georgetown, Kentucky, 2008)
The theme is clear enough in Collin Kelley’s After the Poison: We do not care about people who are peripheral to mainstream society—the poor, the blacks, the gays, the Muslims, the dwellers in the Third World. We do not care about them here or abroad. And to illustrate this, Kelley creates vivid images.
. . . this place
barely exists offers no kickbacks
to presidents, their kin or commanders. . . .
No liberation force is coming [to Darfur]. . . .
Here is famine, genocide,
dark skin pouring black oil
that holds no currency.
(from “War For Oil,” page 5)
No. And we do not care.
. . . the loss of life, while painful,
is a mere drop in the Indian Ocean. . . .
In Banda Aceh, the pool outside the Grand Mosque
is full of debris and bodies, bloated by sea and heat.
Men and women cry, hands to Heaven, . . .
(from “Banda Aceh,” pages 6-7)
But do not compare this to “airplanes flying into buildings.” No, it’s Christmas, when the tsunami hits. so “[Heaven is] not taking calls this week.” “America cleans up its dead so easily,” unlike “the UNCHRISTIAN Third World.” (from “Banda Aceh,” page 6-7)
And in London, the torso of a black boy floats in the Thames. He has been beheaded. His head was probably sacrificed “to drive the evil back to Africa” or maybe eaten by a white man.
. . . police determine this one
came from Nigeria
by the density of his bones. . . .
One small boy, his homeland
a gene, his identity a mystery. . . .
One small boy. 299 still missing.
They call this one Adam.
(from “Human Trafficking,” pages 12-13)
Not all of Kelley’s poems are set in foreign lands. Some deal with events in California, where Ronald Reagan is being buried, “Ronnie’s head to the west/ finally out of his ass.” (from “Siege,” page 3) In our nation’s capital, “there is hope yet,” as speaking to Condoleezza Rice, the poet says, “. . . there is still time to come to the nation’s aid./ I dream of you sitting in front of Congress, nailing it/ with two simple words: ‘Bush lied.’” (from “Confidentiality,” page 8) In New Orleans, some things haven’t changed much from 1905 to 2005. “Katherine, black woman,/ hung from a poplar tree.” (from “Katrina Origins,” page 15) In San Francisco, “In the library, all slick stone,/ more gray, the homeless line up/ for 15 minutes at a free computer.” (from “Hurt,” page 18) And in Harlem, “The man in a hoopty Seville, blue/ and dented, turns a corner /. . . screaming fire, fire, fire.,” while “the two big booty black girls”—described in the first lines of the poem: “the right hair, nails did, jeans that will hug curves”—“yell [back] where’s it at, motherfucker?” (from “In Harlem,” pages 26-27)
Kelley, who is always open and honest about his own homosexuality (and, it seems, everything else), deals directly with this subject in two poems, “Fatwa” and “Siege.” Ronald Reagan, he says,
. . . knew
their kind from his Hollywood days, grab-assing
in the Warner Brothers’ dressing rooms. Faggots.
Bad enough he had to dirty his mouth with the word
AIDS, but gay would never pass his lips,
as if his withholding the word banished them,
made their cries of shame, shame, shame outside
the White House nothing more than a collective
bad dream. . . .
(from “Siege,” page 3)
Then in “Fatwa,” Kelley speaks of an encounter with a Muslim man, whom the speaker in the poem “picked up at the station.” And at this point, it behooves us to remember that the “I” in the poem may or may not be Kelley himself. Although Kelley is gay, he is no more required, or perhaps even inclined, to write autobiographically than any other poet. Kelley is writing about social outcasts and our lack of concern for their well-being, not telling the story of his life. The images concerning what happens and Kelley’s smart play on words are powerful.
I’m here to be your persecution cum dump,
take it out on me, take it out on me. . . .
Let’s come together,
fucking in rhythm and sorrow.
(from “Fatwa,” page 24)
Come together, indeed.
It’s often the last lines of Kelley’s poems—like the final three quoted above—that he earns and uses so well. Lines like these drive home Kelley’s point: our indifference to the pain of others: “I can feel my shoe filling with blood.” (from “Hurt,” 19), “One lost kingdom is enough.” (from “Siege,” page 4), and : “. . . fight the powers, fight the powers that be.” (from “Drowned World,” page 17). These final lines are especially strong:
. . . countries will be occupied, the rich
will drink oil, racism will rise in floodwaters,
and I’ll be free, pardoned, back in the familial fold.
But every time you see me, you’ll remember
the gun in my hand, the street-fighting years,
that we are still prisoners of war,
and you’ll wonder just who has been brainwashed.
(from “Patty Hurst On The Occasion Of Presidential Pardon,” page 21)
And the final lines of the chapbook’s final poem:
Somewhere in the static, a face is trying to come through,
a movie I saw long ago or some other song, Zevon maybe.
And in the rolling vertical hold the words come clearly:
send lawyers, guns and money.”
(from “Los Angeles,” page 23)
Throughout After the Poison, Kelley’s language is uncluttered, his images clear. The reader is never left to solve a word puzzle, but neither language nor image is simplistic. Kelley gives voices and faces to the marginalized and unheard, so that the chapbook seems, somehow, longer than it is, as he continues—poem after poignant poem—to strike chords of true compassion, challenging his reader to care. Collin Kelley calls us out, makes us aware of the poison: the racism, the nationalism, the homophobia. We are now without excuse. What will we do?
Helen Losse is a poet, free lance writer, and Poetry Editor of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Her recent poetry publications include Lily, Ghoti, The Wild Goose Review, Right Hand Pointing, and Blue Fifth Review. She has two chapbooks, Gathering the Broken Pieces, available from FootHills Publishing and Paper Snowflakes, available from Southern Hum Press. Educated at Missouri Southern State and Wake Forest Universities, she lives in Winston-Salem, NC where she occasionally writes book reviews for the Winston-Salem Journal, CutBank Reviews, and other literary magazines.