By Michael Kelleher
BlazeVOX [books] 2007
Reviewed by Mike McDonough
But Mom, He Missed the Kyrie
In a recent email to Coldfront, Geoffrey Gatza , publisher of BlazeVox Books, took my anguished pan of what I felt was his overwrought book in fine spirit, and I thank him for that. The second BlazeVox entry I’m reviewing shows almost too neat contrasts with the first. Human Scaleby Michael Kelleher is a small book, measuring not quite 4X6. Its contents are pared almost to the point of minimalism, and its cover pictures a solitary figure standing on a ridge of ice, silhouetted against an immense, blue sky. Interior graphics are also pared down, consisting of high contrast monochromes of things like birds on streetlights, an osprey pole and buildings in Buffalo, NY, where Kelleher lives, and runs the “Olson Now” project. He does a good job of using the book’s small size to advantage. The content plays to the book’s disarming size in ways that are ingratiating more than cloying. It’s almost as if Kelleher wants to play the deliberate foil to Charles Olson’s giganticism. This can only be a good thing, as no one can outdo the master at Mythico-Zeusian bloviating, and I say this as a huge Olson fan.
Part of what Kelleher brings to the table is an appealing understatement. When one of my critically savvy friends picked up the book and turned right to “Seasonal Affect,” with its 18 nearly identical four-line two-word stanzas, there was a definite eye-rolling moment. I wanted to defend this book and this poem in context and in general, and I’ll use the opportunity here. The first stanza is:
Since Kelleher wants to describe the unfolding of seasonal change, he starts with a simple two-word phrase, and runs through the permutations of changing one word at a time to a similar-sounding word (“cold” to “hold”, “cherry” to “apple”, “ blossom” to “picking”, “petals” to “nettles”, “falling” to “folding”, and “bloom” to “blue”), until the middle two stanzas are repeated, then changing each word back until the last stanza repeats the first. This stratagem might seem mechanical, but to me it emphasizes the continuity of the natural cycle, and the closeness of each word to its opposite.
Kelleher walks us through other similar changes in this book, more successfully in some than in others. “La Jetee” is a powerful but somewhat predictable permutation of the cycles of world violence. “A Passing Shadow” is a rather heavy-handed take on Plato’s allegory of the cave. More winning for me is “Mon Voyage Around the Lake”, a deliberately flat, macaronic travelogue, which, as Henri Bergson might say, humorously transposes the natural expression of an idea into another key: “Ensuite, je drove to Detroit. Je walked about. /Je looked at buildings. Je rode The People Mover around the eviscerated urban core.” This reminds me of a line in Wallace Stevens’ oft-collected December 2, 1920 letter to Harriet Monroe: “Je vous assure, madame, q’une promenade a travers the soot deposit qu’est Indianapolis est une chose veritablement estrange”, which still delights me, probably because I don’t know any French. My larger point is that this is the Wallace Stevens you want to invite to dinner, rather than the Olympian poet, or the dour insurance executive.
In “Nachtmusik”, Kelleher writes a miniature missal for the kind of ecological, spiritual poetics encouraged by Olson. The first stanza explains the title phrase:
The night has come,
The human scale
Is tipped, the rut,
The groove, the frame
Of mind forming
Out of themselves
This reads like a refrain. In fact, the poem will end with “What that love// Might mean, omen/ After omen, amen.” This prayer yearns for “Water, light, earth/ & stars” and a school where he can “learn/ /To read these/ Beautiful warnings.” The disarming sincerity displayed here is remarkable for its humility, and warms cobwebbed cockles in my heart that haven’t been swept since my Confirmation. Kelleher makes this risky move work because of the relative subtlety of the book’s My First Missal-like size and structure, the careful escalation of the explicitness of his refrains, and the correspondingly tough, semi-surrealistic takes on Cuba and Picasso’s Guernica that frame the collection, protecting it like the rind of a handmade cheese, making it suitable for export and rough handling. I should close on that note. Don’t let my liturgical nostalgia deter you from this book.