After the Poison by Collin Kelley
(Finishing Line Press, Georgetown, Kentucky, 2008)
Lost Kingdoms: Discarded, Occupied, Brainwashed
The poems in After the Poison, Collin Kelley’s most recent collection, disturb, rattle all the safe senses and—for me, the satisfying part—pose, without solution, many of today’s definitive quandaries: the bombed, the lied to, the lost, the dead … no home, no name, no fairy tale. In these poems the modern world declares itself—an heiress turned urban guerilla turned seer, a president’s corpse, Little Red, the classified fantasy come to life. The landscape shifts—West Coast to New Orleans to Darfur to Banda Aceh. The constant presence is human tragedy.
Kelley’s writing is immediate, even fierce, creating an urgency in the works. This urgency is made all the more forceful because of the poems’ contemporary settings. It is the reader’s world, and it’s a familiar one. Note the bleakness in these lines:
Look in the mirror,
we are the new public enemy,
and we will be left to drown and starve
if the power has anything to do with it
The use of the mirror, which is such an individual connection, is what makes the lines so direct and impacting. Everyone is vulnerable; everyone is culpable. To overcome the dangers of familiarity, the poem jolts the reader from the comforts of apathy. The writer’s intent is survival. “Drowned World” ends with a plea for action: “fight the powers, fight the powers that be”.
Elsewhere in the chapbook reflection as a trope illustrates a world that is horribly out of balance. In one poem Kelley recasts characters from fairy tales, updating their lives and problems with an echo of Anne Sexton’s Transformations. Of Snow White, he writes that she will
…never eat fresh fruit again,
or comb her hair for that matter,
because the mirror is back talking,
making her paranoid about the Prince,
says he’s got eyes for a skinny maid,
so she’ll hide her dinner in napkins,
or discreetly vomit in a chamber pot,
the comfort she once took in apples
now gone to rot.
(“Fairy Tale Eating Disorders”)
Trust and certainty are no longer possible. Later in the poem, a mirror, used to undermine and destroy any notion of self-worth, “whispers” cruel words to Cinderella, warning that if she does not conform to the accepted ideal of beauty, she’ll break the “dainty glass slipper.” The poem ends with an alarming but exact take on one of the American myths, a founding pillar of commerce: “no one likes / a fat princess”. The world of the do-over. And no one escapes. In the Hansel and Gretel section of the piece, Kelley writes that “even a crone / isn’t safe these days”. Lending a wholeness to the collection, images of reflection or electronic visuals appear in other poems including “Hurt (San Francisco)” [music video on computer], “Patty Hearst On the Occasion of Her Presidential Pardon” [a pose for security cameras], “Banda Aceh” [a pool full of debris and bodies], and “Los Angeles” [a city compared to static and lost signals from a television station off the air].
The poetic voice in After the Poison doubts—and for good reason—governmental authorities and the world’s social conscience. Death—Kelley writes in “D.”—“must have been cloned / into an army working overtime.” The media, religion, family—all fall victim to the turbulent times. One poignant moment deftly shows the unthinkable of which we are all capable:
One small boy, his homeland
a gene, his identity a mystery.
His missing face frozen
in someone’s mind,
maybe a mother who sold him
for a few day’s food,
or the white man who consumed him,
or the voodoo priest who beheaded him
We set upon ourselves. Kelley impresses this theme in several poems: “Siege” [the US government’s response to the AIDS crisis], “War For Oil (Darfur, Africa)” [“dark skin pouring black oil / that holds no currency”], “Katrina Origins” [the vicious history that is the DNA of our language], and “Drowned World” [“the spawn / who claims to hold the power”]. In “Fatwa” two men, two cultures come together in a pick-up—lovemaking that bodies itself “in rhythm and sorrow” under the weight of a “fed up / America” and world, the boil of blood “in veins / here and in Africa.” Fed up because of religious and political fanaticism, of bombing “in the name of freedom,” of the world’s declarations of what is and is not forbidden.
Although I cannot offer enough high praise for this collection, it comes with a warning. The book will make readers squirm in their seats, will force a new, unsettling panorama of the self. After the Poison is a sad book. Sad because it carries truths we would rather not know. Sad because of the overt display of the real terror in our living. It’s a world burning down – as in “Martyr” [in the “market place … setting your hair aflame”], “Across Sampson Street” [fireworks of play and war], and “In Harlem” [prayers that sound “like someone whispering fire, fire, fire]. Or, it’s a drowning world – “Banda Aceh” [“death in leviathan waters”], “Drowned World” [“the sound of tears and blood”], and “Katrina Origins” [“rain gathers, wind sucks”]. Kelley never turns away from the ugliness, from the void of compassion, from the politics that destroy.
There’s also a beauty in these poems—in the relentless language that unmasks, that disrobes the beast that is the new millennium. It’s a work that challenges us to understand, to dare to change. The change must happen, because, as the poet writes, “One lost kingdom is enough.” Read this book. Be amazed by a slender collection that wields such an enormous club.
Sam Rasnake’s poetry has appeared recently in journals such as MiPOesias, Pebble Lake Review, Snow Monkey, Siren, and Boxcar Poetry Review. The author of one chapbook, Religions of the Blood (Pudding House), and one collection, Necessary Motions (Sow’s Ear Press), he edits Blue Fifth Review, an online poetry journal.