James Stotts on Flowers

Avant Botanica

a review by James Stotts

In this political age of Muslim (and various outré) fundamentalisms, ignoring the poetries of disjunction is irresponsible. To deny the beauty of the absurd is always unwise, but right now logics beyond sense form a supercharged locus of critical, humane thought. And it would be wrong to ignore Paul Killebrew. He displays, from the first line of his new collection, Flowers, a lyrical concern, a sensibility that — no matter how much of his texts have been found — is more poetic than random.

It depends whether you believe languages are idiomatic, as opposed to essential, if you will fall for this language: Killebrew’s unit of expression is usually no larger than the sentence, and his aim is nothing less than parsing the elements of English that cannot be reconstructed or translated — the a-paraphrastic. For example, “It is winter, or getting there”, seems inarguably meaningful in the context of his verse — though I cannot guess its relation to wooden boxes and water fountains (the title poem’s vague subjects, a la Magritte). Just three poems into the book, Killebrew wins his argument in favor of those idiosyncratic terms, convincing that they are good, even important and beautiful:

I begin to speak of being deprived.

I believe that I am being kept in want.

“In want” is the perfect bastard signal that Killebrew is keeping himself alive through expression, that the lines are vital, not at all haphazard as they might seem — they are keepers, not throwaways. This is the logic of desire as catalyst, and of lack as motivation. After that is a shifting of the burden at which point one must determine what it is he’s getting at, and why he must. Through serial dismissal and non-sequitur, Killebrew confronts a real crisis:

Out here in the confederated ideas,
it’s not entirely clear that the poet exists.

Really, he is a ditherer, a profoundly distracted one, a spirited, movingly critical one. He questions the possibility of his own self, either poetical voice or real living person, in the face of a world constructed of ideas.

Having a baby causes a radical reevaluation of concepts like personality and the other, which are at once being built and broken down in the face of a child. It’s a cruel attack on the adult psyche, a violation of male identity, and a profound disruption — it corresponds significantly to Killebrew’s method, and it is why his long poem “Forget Rita” — in which he confesses “Look, I’ll eat your children, / so go on and hide them” — is so powerful. But when the poem starts to fritter away its energy on extant fishing trips and car-rides to Memphis, I notice myself feeling how much distance there is between Killebrew and the two poets he most resembles — Don Share and the oft-mentioned, inescapable Ashbery. When his words tangle themselves into rhymes and repetitions, one finds oneself comparing his garbage unflatteringly to Ammons’. When words start to stretch out (“Yeeeeeeeaaaaahhhhhsssss”) and he talks about eating toenails, you feel in your stomach the unknowable heights you’ve fallen to him from Joyce. It is a poem that wants to get over itself, which is a strong impulse, and one that takes sixteen pages to be spent through competing anxieties about losing the self in the office place, in relationships, in days and seasons, in print, etcetera. And after it, there are no more poems.

Because of the obvious comparisons to Ashbery, who even has a poem named after him (“John Fucking Ashbery”) and who was available to give Killebrew a good word inside the cover, some attention must be paid. It’s unavoidable, even those of us who pretend to make meaning cannot deny his influence weighing down on us, un-shadowlike. My own preference would be for Killebrew, even if I know I’m ostensibly wrong (as an analogy: even though I like the taste of rum in theory, I often find my body in disagreement and need the fruit and bubbles). Every one of Killebrew’s poems doggedly pursues Frost’s imperative to say what is lost in translation. But poetry is more than a pursuit, it’s a polemic. . . against poetry, that makes a channel for the exceptions (this is what we call influence).

In this sense, Flowers does not seem sustained in its critical attack. Killebrew is good-natured until he’s exhausted. He starts confidently before getting lost, and repeatedly worries about defining his borders. Ashbery is the model for an overwhelming amount of our bad poetry, when it pretends to be avant-garde. These imitators equate his tone — non-committal, over-allusive, abstract-mundane — with his message, which is a variation on inner complication. His mode is thematics, while theirs is often blather; when Killebrew dithers, he tends to let in the blather. Ashbery is endlessly laconic, a semiconductor wittingly wasting energy, a hot, slow wire, utterly dispensible.

Killebrew is a very minor poet, and even seems to accept that, or at least be content letting his publishers portray him as such, to wit: Avant-garde is little more now than a marketing term, a projection of small market share, and with Killebrew’s Flowers the strategy is compounded by the blurbs on the first page from Šalamun and Ashbery, who tell us that as a poet Killebrew has already defined his objective and is moving on, irrespectively. Šalamun gives us the deflating news that Killebrew is going into early retirement — that is, law school. Ashbery says (cruelly and ironically it seems) that Killebrew “plunges us into a world we inhabit but seldom notice, forcing its horror on us but also reminding us why we go on coping with it, why we’re in it for the long haul, wherever the carpool takes us.” The carpool is a contractual destination: all of Ashbery’s passengers are going to the same work, listening to his music. And just for good measure, a third blurb is from Catherine Wagner, who tells us she came with a term for Killebrew’s kind of poetry without knowing what she even meant, and then upon looking up the words decides that anecdotal phenomenology actually can describe his work, sort of. The whole production, then, from publication to hype is an admission of gladhands. I wonder if they realized how transparent this all seems. It’s unfortunate — Killebrew’s poetry, while far from satisfactory, deserves a little more than this avant-garde consolation prize.

James Stotts is the youngest of five; poet, translator, jongleur, and father. His work is forthcoming in Little Star, Action Yes, AGNI, and 1913. He is currently engaged with Russian poetry between the wars (Esenin, Vaginov, Mariengof, etcetera). 

in this article

by Paul Killebrew
Softcover, $12.00
Canarium Books